Columbia Is In Like A Lion

Megan Griffith’s team couldn’t make its case for an NCAA Tournament berth on the basketball court this Saturday, so she resorted to other means, the classic means of a Columbia graduate: sternly reciting facts!

“The committee—I hope you’re listening, whoever’s watching this,” the Lions’ head coach began in her press conference after Columbia’s 75-58 Ivy League tournament championship game loss to Princeton. She told this imagined audience about her team’s run to the WNIT championship game last year; about their 11-game win streak to end the season; about Columbia’s close [mumble] loss [/mumble] to [mumble] not-very-good [/mumble] Florida back in November; about the time they did beat Princeton, in late February, when the Tigers were ranked No. 25, the first ranked win in Columbia program history. “The NCAA talks about wanting to grow the game and we just consistently put SEC teams in that are 15-14 or gotten beat by everybody in the SEC because that conference isn’t very good. They just beat each other, except for SC and LSU,” Griffith said.

The committee listened. They listened to every word. The Lions will play their first-ever NCAA tournament game Wednesday night in the First Four, and they will do so against the SEC’s very own Vanderbilt, who, the Commodores will have you know, finished 22-9 this season, thank you very much. The winner gets five-seed Baylor in the first round.

If the particulars of her argument may come back to haunt her tonight, Griffith wasn’t wrong to lobby for a two-bid Ivy. Her team has now shared back-to-back regular-season conference titles with Princeton, and Princeton has proven itself a worthy tournament team. They managed a first-round upset last year as an 11-seed, and another one in 2022. (They even came close to a second-round upset of three-seed Indiana that year, but turned it over on the final possession.)

As a women’s basketball league, the Ivy is legit. JuJu Watkins may get most of the credit for USC’s resurgence this year, but she’s helped out by an excellent trio of grad transfers from Columbia, Harvard, and Penn. Lest you think this Power 5–Ivy League beef runs only one way, consult Mirjam Swanson’s profile of “The Nerds,” who play with the best freshman in the country in the best conference in the country and still harness this old grudge:

Utterly familiar with one another’s games, they’re all three hungry for more than granola bars—because they’ve spent the past few years knocking each another out of NCAA Tournament consideration, watching bitterly as Princeton got to go dancing season after season.

And, oh, how they’d relish a date with the Tigers now, Padilla asking the tournament selection committee for a favor: “Put us against Princeton.”

Davis, co-signing: “Literally.”

And Forbes, for the record: “Put it in the tabloids: We want Princeton.”

(The committee, sadly, did not honor this request.)

The pace- and opponent-adjusted metrics at Her Hoop Stats suggest Columbia’s offense is top-30 in women’s basketball. Star senior Abbey Hsu typifies the Lions’ efficiency. By volume and accuracy, Columbia’s all-time leading scorer is among the best three-point shooters in the country, making about 40 percent of her seven-plus attempts per game. Her life story, sure to be broached on the broadcast tonight, reads like a catalog of 21st-century tragedy: Hsu’s father died of COVID-19 in her freshman year of college, and she has described hobbling to safety in a parking lot near Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School, where she survived a mass shooting a week after tearing her ACL in her junior year. “Players like Abbey Hsu, whose story is now being shared and told around the country—I think that’s what make this all so special,” Griffith said in her press conference after Selection Sunday.

Columbia runs its offense through Hsu and two junior guards, Kitty Henderson and Cecelia Collins, and when the Lions win, it’s because of their spacing and ball movement. Vanderbilt ranks slightly lower than Columbia in the Her Hoop Stats ratings but one spot ahead of them in the NET, and their size advantage might give them an edge against a guard-oriented Columbia team. (SEC steals leader and All-Defensive Team member Jordyn Cambridge should cause some trouble, too.)

The Commodores are also plenty equipped with bulletin-board material now. Shea Ralph, a longtime Geno Auriemma assistant in her third year as head coach at Vanderbilt, told reporters she’d heard what Griffith had said. The conference might “just beat each other,” but they’ll stick up for each other when they need to. Or, as Ralph put it: “We are really looking forward to representing the SEC.”

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