February 25, 2024 

What Columbia’s win over Princeton showed about the Lions’ team and program

Despite losing seven seniors, Columbia is tied for first place again in the Ivy League

In September, Columbia head coach Megan Griffith told her players that they would become the best team in program history by the end of the season.

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It seemed like an audacious claim, given both what the Lions had accomplished in the 2022-23 season and then lost to graduation. That team went 28-6, won the program’s first-ever Ivy League regular-season championship, and fell one game short of its first NCAA Tournament. It built on the previous season’s run to the WNIT quarterfinals — a first for an Ivy League team — by advancing all the way to the WNIT championship game.

After last season, the Lions graduated seven seniors, including three starters. They lost 54% of their minutes and 53% of their points, the heaviest losses in the Ivy League. They brought in two transfers and six freshmen, but half the roster for 2023-24 was new.

Still, Columbia’s players — including co-captains Abbey Hsu and Kitty Henderson — believed their coach.

“I believe every word this woman says,” Hsu told reporters on Saturday. “Even if she says we’re going to the moon tomorrow, I’m like, ‘Okay.’ She has a plan for everything she does, and it’s gotten us this far.”

“Coach G’s our ride or die,” Henderson added. “So we’re going to do everything we can to kind of back up what she’s saying.”

On Saturday, Columbia backed up Griffith’s statement in a big way by defeating Princeton, 67-65. That pushed the two teams into a first-place tie, with 10-1 records in the Ivy League with three games remaining. It’s right where Columbia was last season, but one game better — last season, the two teams were 9-2 at this point and shared the regular-season title at 12-2.

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This season started off a little bumpy for the Lions: They went 2-4 in their first six games, with losses on opening night at Stony Brook and to three Power Five teams. But since then, they’ve won 17 of 18 games, with the only loss coming at Princeton on Jan. 20. Griffith credited Hsu, Henderson and the other returners with teaching the newcomers what the culture and standard is for the program.

“Our culture has continued to grow and get stronger over time this season,” Griffith told reporters a few days after the Princeton loss. “And that’s something that’s really hard to do when half of your team is new. So that’s something I’m really proud of.”

One sign of progress was junior transfer Cecelia Collins getting comfortable asserting herself as a leader midway through the season. Another came when freshman Fliss Henderson — Kitty’s sister — addressed her whole team for the first time during a January practice, rather than relying on an upperclassman to do it.

In early February, Griffith said that her team had already surpassed last year’s team in some facets of the game but wasn’t there in others. This year’s Lions had the better playmaking, decision-making and basketball IQ, and Griffith’s playbook for them is bigger than it’s ever been.

But as good as their offense was, they still needed to solidify their defense. That showed in the January loss to Princeton, as Columbia allowed Princeton to shoot a blistering 71.4% in the second half and score 36 of its 47 second-half points in the paint.

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In Saturday’s win, Columbia reached a new level defensively. The game plan was to stifle Princeton’s elite guard trio of Kaitlyn Chen, Madison St. Rose and Skye Belker, who had combined for 53 points in the January game, and “make their bigs a little bit more of the stars,” as Griffith put it.

It worked: Princeton’s starting guards scored just 30 points on Saturday. The Lions stuck to the defensive game plan and cleaned up their rotations so they didn’t overhelp, which had given Princeton easy looks in the first game. 

“I don’t think any [Princeton] shot today was not contested,” Griffith said postgame. “… I still don’t think we’re as good as we could be … but I think we took a big step tonight.”

Overall, Princeton shot 37.1% from the field and 23.1% from 3-point range on Saturday, compared with 47.2% and 42.9% shooting for Columbia. Columbia’s outside shooting was always going to be pivotal because it’s something Columbia does well and Princeton struggles to defend.

The Lions rank in the 93rd percentile nationally in 3-pointers made and attempted and in the 76th percentile in 3-point shooting percentage. Princeton, meanwhile, ranks among the five worst teams nationally in opponent 3-point shooting — a massive hole in what is otherwise a stout defense. Hsu took advantage with a game-high 26 points on 4-for-7 3-point shooting, and Collins and Kitty Henderson each made two of their five 3-point attempts.

“I thought [there were] some breakdowns in our communication,” Princeton head coach Carla Berube told reporters postgame. “We’re leaving Collins and Hsu, two of the best 3-point shooters, wide open on some possessions.”

It was still a close game throughout, with three ties and four lead changes. But Columbia ultimately led 76% of the time, including the entire fourth quarter, and staved off a late Princeton run to win. Fittingly for two teams that pride themselves on grit, the game ended with six of the 10 players on the court fighting for a loose ball.

“We call those ball-getter plays, and we got a lot of ball-getters on our team,” Griffith told ESPN+’s Lance Medow postgame. “So I like our odds in that situation.

“This team was ready. They wanted to go get this game. I think the look in their eyes told me all I needed to know in that last timeout.”

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This outcome wasn’t necessarily expected in the preseason. Columbia was picked to finish second in the Ivy League, but the Lions’ point total in the voting was well behind Princeton’s and just one point ahead of third-place Harvard’s.

Princeton did lose two starters from last season’s NCAA Tournament team, but the Tigers are the five-time defending Ivy League champions and have won games in two straight NCAA Tournaments. They reloaded this season, just as they are expected to year after year. But Columbia, the relatively new challenger to the throne, was expected to take a step back with a talented but largely inexperienced roster.

Instead, Columbia has been Princeton’s equal — and, however improbably, the equal of last year’s Lions squad. Columbia’s offense this year is about three points per 100 possessions better than last year, while its defense is about five points worse. That leaves its net rating (points scored minus points allowed per 100 possessions) nearly unchanged. The Lions’ effective field goal percentage this season is slightly higher, their turnover rate is virtually the same, and their rebounding rate is identical to last year at 55.1%.

“The expectation for Columbia women’s basketball is to win the league,” Griffith said in January. “That’s what the expectation is, not just from us, but everybody around us. … Everybody forgot that we graduated what we did, and I’m just like, You know what? Yeah, because that’s the kind of program we want to be. We are a championship program with championship culture.”

A week later, she added, “It’s crazy when you think about it that we’re … having these conversations [about measuring up to last year]. And that’s what I’m most proud of my staff about and our players is they’ve done such a good job at … not dwelling on what we lost. 

“It’s just like, no, this is what we got, and we’re going to battle with that.”

Columbia head coach Megan Griffith walks down the sideline, toward center court, while watching the action on the court. Her team cheers from the bench, and a Princeton Tigers backdrop is visible in the background.
Columbia head coach Megan Griffith leads her team in a game against Princeton at Jadwin Gymnasium in Princeton, N.J., on Jan. 20, 2024. (Photo credit: Columbia University Athletics / Stockton Photo, Inc.)

Saturday’s result was also the latest history-making moment for a Lions program that has broken many school records in recent seasons. With Princeton ranked No. 25 in the AP poll, it was Columbia’s first win in 13 tries over a ranked team. It was also the Lions’ first home win against Princeton since 2008 and extended their program-record home winning streak to 13 games. And on her Senior Day, Hsu surpassed 2,000 career points, becoming the first Lion and fourth Ivy League women’s player ever to do so.

Related reading: How Abbey Hsu became Columbia basketball’s all-time leading scorer

While Columbia and Princeton are likely to share the Ivy League title again this season, it’s not guaranteed. Whatever happens in these next three games, though, it’s clear that Griffith has built a sustainable program, not a flash in the pan from a couple good recruiting classes.

Since 2019, Columbia has won 76% of its games and 79% in Ivy League play. That’s a far cry from the 31% and 26%, respectively, before Griffith’s arrival, and it’s a big part of why Hsu and Henderson are willing to go to the moon and back if Griffith clears them for launch.

The program has also rallied fans behind it: Columbia led the Ivy League in attendance in 2021-22 and 2022-23, and its sellout crowd of 2,698 on Saturday marked the fourth time this season that the Lions have drawn more than 2,000 fans.

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Columbia had already stoked a rivalry with Harvard after playing the Crimson a record four times last season. Now, having gone 2-2 against Princeton over the past two seasons, that rivalry seems set to shape the Ivy League for years to come. Princeton has won an incredible 86% of its games overall and 94% of its Ivy League games since 2019, but two of its three conference losses in that span are to Columbia.

“It feels good, not going to lie,” Hsu said on Saturday about beating Princeton. “… They’re a great team. That’s why you play basketball. You don’t play basketball to crush teams by 20, 30 [points]. And we always know they’re gonna bring their best.”

Collins had shared a similar message with her teammates before the opening tip on Saturday. The crowd was roaring, and the emotions of Senior Day ran high. But all that mattered was that, somehow, even with so many new faces, Columbia was playing for first place against a familiar rival.

“This,” the Lions’ newest leader said, “is what we play for.”

The Next‘s Em Adler contributed reporting for this story.

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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