March 22, 2024 

Columbia exits NCAA Tournament early, but its presence has staying power

Lions nearly pulled off 10-point comeback in First Four against Vanderbilt

During their First Four game in the NCAA Tournament on Wednesday night, Columbia and Vanderbilt players dove on the floor fighting for the opening jump ball. That resulted in another tie-up, prompting the officials to redo the jump ball.

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After the game ended, Columbia wished it could redo some of its shots, too. The Lions fell to the Commodores 72–68 in Blacksburg, Virginia, in their first NCAA Tournament game as a Division I team.

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It wasn’t Columbia’s best showing, in part due to Vanderbilt’s defense. The Lions shot 43.4% from the field but only 23.8% from 3-point range, about nine percentage points below their average.

The second quarter was especially brutal, as Columbia hit just four of 13 shots and was outscored by 10. It “sticks out like a sore thumb in my mind right now,” head coach Megan Griffith told reporters postgame.

Senior guard Abbey Hsu, who was named an AP All-America Honorable Mention on Wednesday, particularly struggled offensively, missing nine straight 3-pointers after making her first two. She ends her career with 375 made 3-pointers, nearly 100 more than any other player in Ivy League women’s basketball history, and as the third-highest scorer in Ivy history with 2,126 career points.

Columbia also had 12 assists against 18 turnovers, with eight of those turnovers coming in the second quarter. Vanderbilt pressed the Lions, which led to some poor decisions. “Their defense is different to what we’ve seen before,” junior point guard Kitty Henderson told reporters afterward. “I think they make you second-guess yourself.”

Defensively, the Lions shut down the Commodores for stretches but struggled to contain them when the ball entered the post. 6’2 Commodores forward Sacha Washington had 16 points on 8-for-9 shooting and 15 rebounds. Hsu told reporters postgame that she and her teammates were locked into their individual matchups but not fully connected as a group, which led to a lack of help in the post against Washington and others.

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Despite all of that, though, the Lions battled and almost gutted out the win. They fought back from a 10-point deficit to get within two points on two separate occasions. The first instance came with 3:46 left in the third quarter, when freshman guard Fliss Henderson (Kitty’s sister) converted two free throws. The Lions then got a defensive stop, but they couldn’t tie the game on a play that seemed to sum up their night.

Sophomore guard Perri Page grabbed the defensive rebound and took the ball coast to coast, but she missed her layup. Fliss got the offensive rebound and missed the putback, and then Kitty pulled down the offensive rebound in traffic. But she crashed to the floor with the ball and was called for traveling.

“You’re always going to get a fight from this team,” Hsu said. “I think we have some of the toughest players in the country, and especially from our young kids, the maturity that they have to not only just play hard all the time but also think the game.”

The Lions again cut the lead to two with three seconds left in the game on an unconventional 3-point play by junior guard Cecelia Collins. She missed her second of two free throws, but the Lions kept possession and Collins eventually converted a jumper in the paint. But after Columbia used its final timeout to set up its press, it couldn’t get a game-changing turnover, and Vanderbilt guard/forward Justine Pissott sealed the win with two free throws.

The Lions just needed one more stop or a few more shots to fall, but that’s how it often goes in March. So Columbia ran up the tunnel back to its locker room in defeat, inches away from Vanderbilt players using the same tunnel for the early stages of their celebration.

Kitty Henderson led the way for the Lions with 20 points — nine in the fourth quarter alone — and nine rebounds. She also had two assists and drew six Vanderbilt fouls.

“Kitty will just lay everything out for our team,” Griffith said. “And she plays so dang hard all the time.”

Columbia guard Fliss Henderson dribbles just outside the paint with her left hand, trying to back down a Harvard defender. Her teammates Kitty Henderson and Cecelia Collins are visible in the background, communicating with each other on the perimeter.
Columbia guard Fliss Henderson (4) makes a move during an Ivy League Tournament semifinal against Harvard at Levien Gymnasium in New York, N.Y., on March 15, 2024. (Photo credit: Domenic Allegra / The Next)

Hsu and Collins each had 13 points, and Collins added six rebounds and five assists. Fliss Henderson had eight points and seven rebounds and was a team-high plus-8 in 23 minutes. Fliss’ performance prompted Kitty to describe herself postgame as “a proud big sister.”

“Everybody who was watching this game saw how good Fliss Henderson is,” Griffith said. “… She’s a force to be reckoned with. She’s smart. She can score. She’s tough. She can defend. … She’s gonna have a bright — a very bright — future here at Columbia.”

In their postgame press conference, Hsu, Kitty Henderson and Griffith were disappointed with the result, but they weren’t distraught like they had been after losing the Ivy League Tournament final. At the time, they thought their NCAA Tournament hopes had slipped away, but they were surprised with an at-large berth on Selection Sunday.

Related reading at The IX: The agony and the ecstasy of Megan Griffith

On Wednesday, the Lions knew they’d moved the program forward. They played on the sport’s biggest stage for the first time, and they showed they belonged, even in defeat.

The program has come a long way from 2016, when Griffith took over and an alum quipped that the Lions were ranked 400th out of 362 Division I teams.

“We often joke about that now, but it was true. We really came all the way from the bottom to be here in this moment,” Griffith told reporters on Tuesday, ahead of the game. “So I hope everybody can see … through our play [on Wednesday] what this program is about and how much we love each other and care about each other.”

Griffith is confident that the Lions will be back in the tournament soon — that Wednesday was only an appetizer for what’s to come, despite the Lions’ lack of history in the event. She believes she’s built a program strong enough to withstand the graduation of Hsu, arguably the best player in Columbia history.

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Part of the reason for Griffith’s confidence is the Lions’ shift from a coach-led program to a player-led one. Two seasons ago, she freely admitted that her team often looked to her for guidance and as its emotional pendulum. This season, the players can get a lot of that from each other.

“That’s when you know [the] culture’s in a good place is when they are breeding that within themselves and modeling it for each other,” Griffith said on Wednesday.

She also has a blueprint from this past season for how to move forward in the face of heavy personnel losses. The Lions graduated seven seniors in 2023, including three starters, but still managed to win a second straight Ivy League regular-season title and make the NCAA Tournament.

“This is the cycle and this is the mortality of college sports is you graduate,” Griffith said. “You graduate great players and you coach great players. … I have a phenomenal staff. We recruit with the best of them, and we make sure that we develop our players. And I can tell you that we’re going to develop every single one of those players that’s sitting in that locker room right now. And we’re gonna go out and get some great players as well to play alongside them.”

Columbia guard Kitty Henderson looks down the court as she dribbles in transition with her left hand without a defender pressuring her.
Columbia guard Kitty Henderson (10) dribbles the ball in transition during an NCAA Tournament First Four game against Vanderbilt at Cassell Coliseum in Blacksburg, Va., on March 20, 2024. (Photo credit: Columbia University Athletics / Josh Wang)

The Lions will return six of their top seven scorers next season, led by Second Team All-Ivy selections Kitty Henderson and Collins. Four starters will be back, so the starting lineup will likely be more experienced overall. Earlier this season, Griffith anointed current freshman guard Riley Weiss as the next great Columbia shooter after Hsu, and on Wednesday, Griffith passed the leadership torch from Hsu to Henderson.

“As Kitty’s gonna learn a lot from this [game], I think she’s going to take the space that Abbey left … in this program,” Griffith said, “and become the player that we need her to be and the leader we need her to be next year.”

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And if Columbia needed any more reason to be proud of what it had done on Wednesday, it could just look into the stands. Building a fanbase had been a goal of Griffith’s when she took the Columbia job, and Columbia has now led the Ivy League in home attendance for three straight seasons.

Many Lions fans made the trip to Blacksburg, and over 1,000 more RSVPed to attend a watch party in Columbia’s gym in New York. By her own admission, Griffith rarely notices what’s happening in the stands, but on Wednesday, she did.

“I just wanted to say thank you to our fan base,” she said to begin her postgame remarks. “… There’s so much blue in this gym. That really made my heart full battling today for you all.”

“I don’t think we played our complete game,” Hsu said, “but I think something to be proud of is the community that we brought with us.”

With a community behind them and a culture established, the Lions will celebrate this season as one for the history books — and then try to rewrite history, as soon and often as possible.

Written by Jenn Hatfield

Jenn Hatfield has been a contributor to The Next since December 2018 and is currently the site's managing editor, Washington Mystics beat reporter and Ivy League beat reporter. Her work has also appeared at FiveThirtyEight, Her Hoop Stats, FanSided, Power Plays and Princeton Alumni Weekly.

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