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Columbia’s Senior Weekend

March 5, 2008 Columns No Comments

Final Home Calls For Columbia Seniors

by Matthew Moll

NEW YORK – Columbia’s Joe Jones has described his fifth men’s basketball team as the “grind-it out type” and a defensively focused team, juxtaposing them with last season’s 12th-best three-point shooting team’s style.

Senior weekend highlighted both the peaks and valleys of the team’s makeup.

In Friday’s victory over Harvard, 61-54, the Lions netted zero threes and are down to 33 percent, compared to last season where they shot over 40 from beyond the arc. A night later in the 63-47 loss to Dartmouth, Columbia could not muster a signature stop and didn’t have the firepower to counter runs from the Big Green on senior night.

For the Lions, the 14th win of the season came by way of following the script they have tried to implement all season.

“We have had a hard time at times getting both guys going,” Jones said, referring to senior post players Ben Nwachukwu and John Baumann. “Very rarely have both guys played great. John is really at his best in the paint, so we have tried to run sets to find ways to get both in the post.”

Friday both bigs flourished. Nwachukwu’s 6’8″, 235-pound frame flummoxed the opposition, forcing Harvard’s forwards into foul trouble. With the Crimson’s middle reeling, the game freed up for both Nwachukwu and Baumann. Nwachukwu finished the game with 20 points and 11 rebounds.

“The way Ben played was awesome,” said Baumann, who netted 18 points and grabbed 10 rebounds. “You could tell they wanted to double-team him and he still made shots over the double teams, which opened it up for me.”

But on senior night, Nwachukwu was held to five points on five field goal attempts in the failed comeback effort. The Lions allowed Dartmouth to tear through the second half and shoot over 50 percent from the field.

After Friday’s win, Jones said he hoped his players would not overlook the remaining schedule and he was not quite ready to talk about the season being over.

“This group has gone through so much, done so much for program,” said Jones after Friday night’s win. “But it is not time to reflect now. We still have two more games.”

Whether the Lions were distracted by the ceremonies of Senior Night or by overcoming double-digit deficits against league rivals on consecutive nights is unclear, but Jones doesn’t plan to address the end of this era until the end of the season.

The six seniors – Justin Armstrong, Baumann, Brett Loscalzo, Mack Montgomery, Nwachukwu and Kashif Sweet – are the winningest class since 1981-82, currently at 53 wins, and are the first class Jones recruited. They also boast the school’s most recent first team All-Ivy Leaguer in Baumann, a distinction a Columbia player hasn’t earned since 2000. All while Columbia was supposed to be “rebuilding.”

But to the players this success was no surprise.

“Every one of us came from winning programs from high school,” said Montgomery, who was an all-state performer at Clayton High School in North Carolina. “We expected nothing less than to turn this program around.”

The Lions can match their win total from a season ago (16), which was the school’s highest output since 1992-93, and in the process could eclipse their .500 Ivy League record and end the season at 9-5.

In the end, though, the senior class is introspective about what might have been.

“We know that we had talent,” Montgomery said. “It’s not a shock we won these games.”

“As a matter of fact, we probably think we should have won more.”

The seniors are clearly a tight-knit group, proud of their accomplishments, but still able to give one of their own light-hearted grief for being “downer” in their observations.

“The program still has a long way to go,” Nwachukwu said. “The ultimate goal is to win a championship. When you don’t do that, you always fall short.”


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