March 19, 2024 

Why Columbia’s surprise NCAA Tournament bid is monumental for the program and the Ivy League

Lions got the first bid in their Division I history despite losing Ivy Tournament final

When Columbia’s name flashed across the screen Sunday, indicating the Lions were NCAA Tournament–bound, head coach Megan Griffith was the first one out of her chair. She leaped to her feet and tackled associate head coach Tyler Cordell, who was sitting one chair over. Then she reached an arm out and pulled director of operations Jon Rubenstein into the fold.

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Columbia received its first NCAA Tournament berth since the program moved to Division I in 1986-87. The Lions are a No. 12 seed and will compete in a play-in game Wednesday against Vanderbilt in Blacksburg, Virginia.

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Their invitation to the Big Dance was far from a sure thing — in fact, bracketologists generally had Columbia out of the field entering the Ivy League Tournament. After the Lions lost at home to Princeton in Saturday’s championship game, Griffith pleaded their case to the NCAA Tournament selection committee in her press conference, but she wasn’t hopeful.

Griffith and her staff met with their players before the selection show and tried to prepare them for either outcome. Last season, the Lions had also been on the bubble but didn’t make the field, and “we were so devastated that it kind of tore us apart,” Griffith told reporters late Sunday night. “So this year, my staff and I were just like, ‘Hey, we got to get in front of this.’ And then when it happened … that is also probably why we were so shocked because I think we were all very ready to be in the [WBIT].”

Instead, Columbia’s name popped up in the bracket, and the players weren’t far behind Griffith in reacting to the moment. A collective roar swelled in the Lions’ meeting room, and then came a combination of tears, wails and cheers. The players hugged one another in groups of two or three or six, all in disbelief. They were so happy that Griffith later resorted to inventing a word — “elatement” — to describe the scene.

“I really didn’t believe we had a legitimate chance. And it was a shock,” she said. “I think people were just completely overwhelmed by it.”

Though Griffith was down on her team’s chances, the Lions had built a strong résumé throughout the season. After starting 2-4, albeit with close losses to Duke and Florida, the Lions won 21 of their last 23 games to finish with a 23-6 record, including a program-best 13-1 record in Ivy League play. They beat Princeton, Villanova and Seton Hall and had zero losses against teams outside the top 100 in the national NET rankings.

Lisa Peterson, the chair of the NCAA Tournament selection committee, cited the Lions’ 21-2 finish as a big reason for choosing them and said the committee watched the Ivy League championship game together.

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“We thought [that game] was more about what Princeton had done than what Columbia hadn’t done,” she told reporters Sunday. “And so [Columbia had a] great regular season. They tried to challenge themselves outside of the league, and [we] just really felt like they deserved to be in the tournament.”

Columbia’s tournament berth is momentous for a program that not only has never reached these heights before, but floundered for decades. From the program’s first season in Division I until Griffith was hired in 2016, Columbia went 246-557, winning just 30.6% of its games. In the Ivy League, the Lions were even worse, winning only 25.7% of their games.

In contrast, the Lions have won more than they’ve lost in Griffith’s seven seasons of competition, with a 122-83 overall record and 54-44 in conference play. They broke the program’s previous Division I record of 18 wins in each of the past three seasons and won their first Ivy League regular-season title in 2022-23. They made their first WNIT appearance in 2021-22, advancing to the Elite Eight, and made the WNIT championship game last season — both firsts for the Ivy League.

Columbia head coach Megan Griffith stands next to point guard Kitty Henderson and talks to her, gesturing with her left hand. Henderson tilts her body and head slightly toward Griffith as she listens.
Columbia head coach Megan Griffith (right) instructs point guard Kitty Henderson 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)

And even after losing seven seniors from last year’s team, Griffith kept the program rolling this year, winning another regular-season conference title. “This is just us showing everybody … that this is sustained success and we can keep doing this,” she said Sunday.

Griffith relied heavily this season on Ivy League Player of the Year Abbey Hsu, who is the top scorer in Columbia women’s and men’s basketball history and the third-highest in Ivy women’s basketball history. In the senior guard’s career in Columbia blue, the Lions have won 76.2% of their games overall and 80.4% in conference.

In Griffith’s postgame press conference on Saturday, she was moved to tears thinking about the possibility that her program-changing guard wouldn’t get to show her mettle in the NCAA Tournament. “She needs to be seen,” Griffith said. “And I really hope the committee gives her and this team a chance.”

Fewer than 30 hours later, Griffith got to reflect on Hsu getting that chance.

“It means everything. It’s why you do what you do,” Griffith said Sunday. “She’s going to be in my life for the rest of my life. I know that. And to get to see her on the biggest stage, showing the world what she can do, it makes me so proud because she deserves everything.”

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For Griffith, too, the NCAA Tournament bid is more validation of how she’d planned to transform Columbia — her alma mater — when she was hired at just 31 years old.

“I give huge credit to [Columbia athletic director] Peter Pilling because he hired me when I was just a kid,” she told reporters after Friday’s Ivy League semifinal win over Harvard. “I had this crazy vision. I told him I was going to come here and win championships.”

However, for Griffith and her team, getting this bid wasn’t the classic Cinderella story. They got it the hard way.

“If the perfect story [is we] win the [conference] tournament, we’re on our home floor, all those, yeah, I think I had a good idea of what that would feel like,” Griffith said Sunday. “But for it to happen this way, I don’t think I could have pictured this at all.”

The Lions got just the second at-large bid that an Ivy League team has ever received, following Princeton’s in 2016. Griffith was an assistant on that Tigers team before coming to Columbia.

“It was monumental,” Griffith said about the 2016 bid. “I remember at that moment, us knowing and feeling that and how special that was. And I think every coach in our league has been fighting to get us back to that place.”

It took eight years, but the Ivy League is back there now. The Ivy League was the seventh-best in the country this season, behind only the Power Six, and the selection committee seemed to recognize its strength.

Five Columbia players come together in a huddle near the restricted arc. The five Princeton players are farther away from one another but about to gather.
Columbia (in blue) and Princeton players huddle on the court during the Ivy League Tournament championship game at Levien Gymnasium in New York, N.Y., on March 16, 2024. (Photo credit: Columbia University Athletics | Josh Wang)

Princeton, the conference tournament champion and regular-season co-champion, received a No. 9 seed, its best since receiving only a No. 8 seed as an undefeated team in 2015. The Tigers will play No. 8 seed West Virginia in a first-round game in Iowa City.

“Our committee’s really watching games,” Peterson said, “and they’ve watched Princeton all year long and just see what a really great team that they are.”

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Now, the Tigers and the Lions will both have a chance to prove the committee right. Princeton is seeking its third NCAA Tournament win in as many seasons, while Columbia is chasing its first Division I NCAA Tournament win and first-ever win over an SEC team.

“I’m extremely grateful,” Griffith said, “and I just can’t wait to show everybody why we deserve this bid.”

For so many years at Columbia, the NCAA Tournament felt far enough away that it might as well have been on the moon. Then Griffith came along with big ideas and a ball of fire, and she’s rocketed the program to national prominence.

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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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