Columbia Rolls Into CIT Finals Carrying Ivy League Flag

After beating NJIT somewhat handily 80-65 Sunday night in the semifinals of the CIT, Columbia coach Kyle Smith talked about how great the Ivy League has been.

“The league’s good. I was really happy for Yale,” Smith said. “I feel like sometimes it’s like ‘if a tree falls in the forest’ thing because that’s how I feel about the Ivy League. I’ve been screaming at the top of my lungs that there’s really good teams and that helps prove that. Princeton got a horrible seeding in the NIT, should not have been on the road, and they almost advanced as it was.”

While the CIT is more of a punchline among national writers than anything else, Columbia’s postseason run has served to validate the rise of the Ivy League a bit. Yes, the Lions (24-10) have played the whole tournament at home, but it’s also served as a nice encore for the careers of a tremendous senior class, which unfortunately fell short of its ultimate goal of winning an Ivy League title and going to the NCAA Tournament for the first time since 1968.

But, particularly in the modern Ivy, titles aren’t exactly easy to come by. And while it won’t make much noise nationally, Sunday’s win broke the school record for victories in a season (which was previously held by that 1967-68 team at 23-5), and it’s hard to argue that the senior class of Maodo Lo, Alex Rosenburg, Isaac Cohen, and Grant Mullins isn’t one of the best in school history.

“If we could wrap up this championship on Tuesday, it’d be great,” Smith said. “It’s over 100 years the program’s been in existence. This team has won more than any of them. It doesn’t necessarily mean they’re better, but it’s still a great legacy for them to leave.”

Said Rosenberg, who : “Our goal was definitely to win an Ivy League championship and coming short of that did not feel too good. But short of that as seniors you want to leave a legacy, and we feel like if we win on Tuesday, that’s the best way to do it. To get 25 wins and get a championship, I don’t think has been done ever, here.”

The win over NJIT also means Columbia is 5-0 in CIT play against non-Ivy League competition. Two years ago, the Lions were eliminated by Yale at Levien Gym in the quarterfinals. The Bulldogs went to the finals before falling to Murray State, and obviously only got better from there, sharing the Ivy title last season and breaking its 54-year NCAA Tournament drought (and winning a game as well) this season.

Sunday, Columbia missed its first 10 three-point shots, but still were able to grab a lead midway through the first half thanks to a physical edge that NJIT (20-15) tried its darnedest to overcome, but could not. The Lions finally hit a couple of threes and led 33-22 at the break. But after being held to just 0.71 points per possession in the first half, the Highlanders exploded out of the locker room led by a much more animated than usual coach Jim Engles, getting to within 40-35 at one point before Columbia righted the ship.

NJIT battled until the end, led by Damon Lynn, who had one of his best shooting games of the season, going 6-9 from behind the arc for 18 points. But the Highlanders never got within nine points again after that spurt to start the second half.

“We had a rewarding year. We had some adversity that we didn’t have last season, some guys weren’t practicing, and none of us knew what to expect from the new league (Atlantic Sun),” Engles said. “We lost a couple of buzzer beaters or our record would be a little better. At least we got a chance to win a couple of wins in the CIT. We’ll have a good idea of how to compete in the A-Sun next season. Just knowing who they are, the players, the physical places, the referees, all that experience will help us next year.”

Said Smith: “I’m always concerned about our defense. I think we finished right at 1.00 points per possession, which would make us 17-0 when he hold teams under that if we were, and we’ve shown we can score. When we defend, we’ve been able to win.”

The win was Smith’s 100th at Columbia, and Lions’ fans will hope that Tuesday’s CIT final at Levien against solid Big West power UC Irvine (who beat Coastal Carolina in the other semifinal) won’t be Smith’s last in New York. As they did last year when San Diego (where Smith was an assistant) opened, he has been linked to the vacant San Francisco position (another WCC team).

For what it’s worth, Smith sounded optimistic that Columbia can keep its current level of play next season and into the future even graduating Lo and this stellar senior class, as well as the level of play it takes in the Ivy League these days.

“We have a great group of seniors and they’re leading the way for us, but I’m real excited for next year in the sense that I think people will discount us, but these young guys are going through the process and they’ll be ready,” Smith said.

(Ironically, if Smith does leave, the first name that pops up would likely be Engles, who was a Columbia assistant from 2003-08. However, with a new arena coming in 2017 and a pretty good fanbase which traveled pretty well to Manhattan Sunday night to fill it, he may not take the bait anyway: “The Ivy League is very good. We played Yale, Columbia twice, and they’re really, really good teams,” Engles said after the game. “It’s a legitimate mid-major power now. They’ve all raised the level of their play across the board.”)

Meanwhile, a season-high 29 points from Lo (to go with six assists and three steals) means he is 25 away from becoming the all-time scoring leader (24 to tie) at Columbia. He is still currently third, but will need 15 Tuesday to pass Jim McMillian (1967-70) and 10 more to beat all-time leader Buck Jenkins (1989-93) in his final collegiate game.

“There’s only a limited amount of teams that are still playing basketball,” Lo said. “So it’s always nice to compete and to play for a championship to finish my career.”

Rosenberg added 16 points, while Mullins had 12, and Lukas Meisner had a double-double (11 and 10) for the Lions, who made 10 of their final 27 three-pointers (10-27 overall). Along with Lynn’s 18, Ky Howard had 14 points, and Tim Coleman scored 11 points and had 14 rebounds for the Highlanders, who shot 12-25 from three overall.

With a scheduling snafu pitting the CIT semifinals directly against the NCAA regional finals (on Easter, no less), Columbia should get a bit more visibility Tuesday in the final on CBS Sports, even if it is at the same time at the NIT semifinals some 80 blocks downtown.

And whatever you think of the Postseason Tournament (the full name of the CIT), it’s hard to argue that the Columbia seniors don’t deserve it.