NEW YORK, N.Y.—A lack of offense down the stretch coupled with a scalding hot second half by Columbia doomed the Harvard men’s basketball team on Friday night as the Crimson fell to the Lions, 83-76, in New York City. Despite a career-high 31 points from sophomore forward Seth Towns and a 15-point first half lead, a post-intermission stretch that saw the Lions make nine straight field goals ultimately proved to be the difference. The loss was Harvard’s first in conference play and further muddled the Ivy League’s postseason picture.
Many of the same themes that have been present for the Crimson (9-11, 4-1 Ivy League) over its last several games were on display on Friday night—Harvard jumped out to a large lead early in the first half, allowed Columbia (5-13, 2-3) back into the contest before intermission, and offset offensive spells by going cold from the field for long stretches.
For the first time in conference play this season, however, the formula resulted in defeat for the Crimson. A week after not making a field goal in the game’s final 4:56 against Yale and still managing to win, converting just three in the final 7:09 of its matchup against the Lions proved to be too big of a hurdle for Harvard to overcome.
“I thought that Columbia played incredibly well, especially when we had a sizable lead there early and they really dug in and got back into it in the first half,” Harvard coach Tommy Amaker said. “I thought that was a big key in that we weren’t able to sustain that march that we had early.”
While defense tends to be the Crimson’s calling card and three-point shooting the thorn in its side, the script was largely flipped on Friday evening. Harvard shot 43 percent from beyond the arc—nailing 16 triples in the process—but struggled to get stops for most of the contest. Towns followed up his career night from last Saturday against Brown with arguably a better performance in New York.
After attacking the rim and converting on midrange jumpers in dismantling the Bears, the sophomore showed off his three-point shooting touch for the 2,010 fans in attendance, making six of nine triple attempts. Towns only turned the ball over twice and had 26 of his the Crimson’s first 49 points. Through five Ivy League contests, the Columbus, Ohio native is averaging 22.8 points per game.
“I think we a good job generally sticking to our principles and how we play on offense,” Towns said. “I’m out there to do whatever we need to do to make a play and score. In terms of playing my game, I don’t think that their pace was disrupting that.”
After Towns helped his team establish an early lead that topped out at 15, Harvard struggled to maintain a torrid scoring pace that was characterized by sharing the basketball and hitting open jump shots. The Lions went on an 11-0 run and ended the first half riding a 22-13 burst that put its deficit at a mere six. After not committing a single turnover in the game’s first 11:32, the Crimson coughed the ball up four times over a 3:28 span late in the opening half.
Facing a Harvard team that prides itself on suffocating defense and slowing the pace on the other end, Columbia relished the opportunity to play offense in transition. The hosts turned the ball over just once and scored 22 points in the frame’s final 9:29 and held without a point for nearly four and a half minutes.
The second major power outage came not long after the first. After Towns pushed his point total to 23 (of the Crimson’s 46) less than two minutes into the second half, the Harvard offense went ice cold. Following Towns’ basket at the 18:34 mark, the Crimson would not score a single point again until 13:28 remained, missing all five of its field goal attempts in the process. Meanwhile, Columbia caught fire once again, shooting 6-of-11 from the field during a 17-5 run to start the frame. After recording just six assists in the entire first half, the Lions registered five on their first six made field goals of the second.
While senior guard Kyle Castlin largely kept the hosts in the game in the first half—12 points on four-of-four shooting off the bench—it was Columbia’s top two scorers who did the damage after the break.
Junior guard Quinton Adlesh made just one of his four first half field goal attempts but scored 13 of the Lions’ first 25 points after intermission and registered 17 points in a stretch that consumed less than eight minutes of game action. Columbia made nine consecutive field goals and saw its lead stand at nine with 9:18 to play. During the hot streak, sophomore guard Mike Smith also came alive, finishing the contest with 16 points after posting just two in the first half.
“We were trying to do different things to slow them down and they got into a nice rhythm running their offense and getting good shots,” Amaker said. “They made some against our zone, I thought they made some tough shots too. I thought a few of the shots we did all we could do, bodies there, hands up, and they still made some tough shots. We told our kids that we just need to keep our heads up.”
Columbia coach Jim Engles noted that Harvard sophomore forward Chris Lewis was the focal point of his team’s defensive gameplan entering the contest. While Lewis struggled with foul trouble last Saturday, he was largely the Crimson’s x-factor in its win over Yale a week ago. The sophomore is consistently a mismatch for Ivy League big men and is the main interior post presence in Amaker’s inside-out offense.