September 10, 2022
How eight days in the summer set the tone for Columbia’s 2022-23 season
A trip to Morocco and Spain gave the Lions extra bonding opportunities, three exhibition games and a lot of confidence
After Columbia women’s basketball took an eight-day trip to Morocco and Spain in August, the players were brimming with confidence, according to head coach Megan Griffith.
“I think they’re feeling really good after this trip,” she told reporters with a laugh on Sept. 2.
And with good reason: Columbia won all three games it played overseas by an average margin of 66.6 points, punctuated by a 136-30 win over the Spanish team Armilla Baloncesto on Aug. 25. The trip set the tone for a 2022-23 season in which Columbia is expected to not only contend for an Ivy League title but make noise nationally as well.
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Columbia’s trip was originally slated for summer 2020, ahead of what was to be a pivotal season for the program. The 2019-20 season was Griffith’s first winning season at Columbia after she was hired in 2016, and that roster featured several young players who were poised to break out in 2020-21.
Instead, after the COVID-19 pandemic ended the 2019-20 season prematurely and wiped out the entire 2020-21 season for the Ivy League, the Lions had to wait until 2021-22 to take the next step. Last season, they had a program-record 25 wins against just seven losses, including a 12-2 record and second-place finish in the Ivy League. They earned the program’s first-ever WNIT berth and won three games to make the quarterfinals.
Taking a foreign tour this summer instead of in 2020 will still help Columbia build on a promising season — but now, the program is further along in its development. It graduated only one player, backup point guard Mikayla Markham, from last year’s team and will have 11 juniors and seniors in 2022-23.
“This is the right group of kids that they get this,” Griffith said. “This was the group that built the culture that really changed the program.”
Columbia departed New York City for Morocco on Aug. 20, then traveled by ferry to Spain on Aug. 24 and flew home on Aug. 28. Griffith had been curious about traveling to Morocco since she heard about it while playing professionally in Europe in the late aughts, and she wanted to take her players somewhere that they might not think of visiting otherwise. The fact that very few college teams had previously visited Morocco only added to the appeal.
“I like to be the first to do things,” Griffith said.
Spain is a more common destination for college teams, but it was a natural fit for Columbia for multiple reasons. It is close to Morocco geographically and shares some cultural influences, and it provided a homecoming for junior Mary Lobon and sophomore Noa Comesaña, both of whom are from Spain and had family members and friends at the games. International recruiting has benefited Columbia recently — in addition to Lobon and Comesaña, sophomore Kitty Henderson is from Australia and freshman Susannah Rafiu is from England — and Griffith stayed in Spain for a few days after the tour to connect with coaches and scouts.
For Griffith, the most significant outcome of the trip was the team continuing to develop chemistry. Though NCAA rules prevented Columbia’s two freshmen from traveling because they had not begun fall classes, the trip gave the returning players extra time on the court together and opportunities for team bonding off the court.
“We already have a very tight-knit family and community and culture, but to go somewhere different, experience something different with those people, I think you just learn a lot about yourself,” Griffith said. “And basketball was kind of the bonus.”
Traveling with Navigo Sports Tours, the group toured historical and cultural landmarks such as the Caves of Hercules in Cape Spartel, Morocco, and the Alhambra, an Islamic palace in Granada, Spain. It saw a flamenco show in Seville, Spain, and took a day trip to Chefchaouen, Morocco, a city that is nicknamed the “Blue Pearl of Morocco” because its houses are traditionally painted blue and white. The group even rode camels on the beach in Morocco, an activity that Griffith called “a crowd favorite.”
Columbia’s travel party immersed itself in the local culture over meals, trying traditional Moroccan food and sharing a postgame dinner with one of its opponents. “[The teams] were just chatting the whole time and it didn’t matter who spoke Spanish or English,” Griffith said. In Morocco, the team’s hosts surprised the group by recreating a traditional wedding party that included food, dancing, festive clothing and henna tattoos.
“I feel like the best part of this is just being able to go home, come home and show all my teammates and my Lion family … Spanish culture,” Lobon said on Aug. 25, “because it’s beautiful and I just enjoy showing them and having them love it.”
The Lions also learned a lot from their three exhibition games. They tried out different lineups, and every player got significant minutes. The games used FIBA rules, some of which encourage the kind of fast-paced game that Columbia loves to play, so the Lions were able to practice making decisions even more quickly. In addition, Griffith pointed out, adjusting to different rules and officiating was itself a learning opportunity for the team.
Overall, Griffith’s assessment was that her team’s level of play this summer was “not very far from where we left off last season.” That showed in the results:
|Date||Opponent||Score||Columbia Leading Scorer|
|Aug. 23||IR Tanger (Morocco)||93-26||Abbey Hsu, 29|
|Aug. 25||Armilla Baloncesto (Spain)||136-30||Jaida Patrick, 28|
|Aug. 27||Spanish select team||75-48||Jaida Patrick, 21|
One player who particularly seemed to benefit from the exhibition games was senior Jaida Patrick, a 5’10 guard who joined the Lions last season as a transfer from Duke. Patrick had a difficult adjustment at times but eventually found her stride, starting the final 12 games and leading Columbia in scoring three times. For the season, she averaged 9.1 points per game on 38.0% shooting from the field. But this summer, she scored 22.7 points per game on 46.2% shooting.
“She’s embracing like, ‘This is my home now,’” Griffith said. “… It took J some time just to adjust to our style, our culture. And … now it’s like, these are her sisters. This is her family. There’s just way more trust amongst her and everybody. You’re seeing her let her guard down in a way that’s been really special. So I think that’s allowing her to be herself on the basketball court … You’re just seeing a freer, looser, more confident Jaida.”
Griffith also named junior Abbey Hsu and senior Kaitlyn Davis — Columbia’s two All-Ivy selections in 2021-22 — and Henderson as players who have made “a major change” in their games to be even better for 2022-23. Henderson, who started 23 games as a freshman and often plays point guard, is making better decisions with the ball and recorded eight assists and zero turnovers in one game overseas. And Hsu and Davis are leading a team that is more mature and “really serious” about what it wants to accomplish this season, even before official preseason practices start.
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Though Columbia has never won an Ivy League title, there is enough talent on the roster that the Lions could be chosen as the preseason favorite, ahead of perennial power Princeton. Instead of downplaying the expectations for her team, Griffith is embracing them. On April 8, less than two weeks after Columbia’s historic 2021-22 season ended, she told reporters that the 2022-23 team would achieve another first:
“We will be in the NCAA Tournament next year. I will tell you that.”
The foreign tour seemingly only bolstered Griffith’s confidence in what she has this season. She expects her defense to be “way more disruptive” and create more transition opportunities, and the offense was obviously clicking in the three games, averaging over 100 points. Griffith even staked an early claim to some end-of-year awards, saying that she wants at least two players — if not her whole starting lineup — on the First Team All-Ivy.
Columbia’s decision to take a foreign tour this summer feels a lot like a poker player seeing a favorable hand and pushing all their chips to the center of the table. We’ll just have to wait a few more months to see whether the Lions have a very good full house or an exceptional royal flush.
For more information on foreign tours and the teams that traveled this summer, read Jenn Hatfield’s story from June 2022, “Foreign tours are officially back in women’s college basketball.”
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 and Power Plays.