March 26, 2022
After a wacky and historic WNIT win, the Columbia Lions are hunting for more
Columbia’s rebuild under Megan Griffith came full circle in Thursday's 17-point comeback against Boston College
After Boston College missed a last-second shot against Columbia on Thursday night, students stormed the court to celebrate the Lions’ improbable 54-51 win in the Sweet 16 of the WNIT. Event staff didn’t do much to dissuade the celebration: One staff member, clad in a bright yellow polo, chest-bumped forward Hannah Pratt, and others hugged jubilant players. Students waved rally towels as they gathered at center court and basked in the moment.
“I’ve never seen that here, and that was really special and an emotional moment for me,” said Columbia head coach and former player Megan Griffith. “… It means a lot, but we’re not done. We’ve got three more games to win.”
The win was historic for a program that had never made the WNIT before, let alone advanced to the Elite Eight. Columbia’s previous high-water season was 1985-86, when the program had a 21-6 record and finished third in the NCAA Division III East Regional Tournament. But between when the architect of that team, Nancy Kalafus, left in 1991 and Griffith’s arrival in 2016, the program won just 28% of its games.
Before Thursday, it was clear that Columbia was on the rise under Griffith, finishing second in the Ivy League and posting a 24-6 overall record this season. But the result symbolically capped the program’s rebuild in two ways: First, it improved Griffith’s record at Columbia to 71-70 after her tenure began with three straight losing seasons. In addition, the road to this moment began with a 14-point loss at Boston College in December 2018.
Columbia started mostly freshmen in that game, and after the Lions kept it close, Griffith said that Boston College head coach Joanna Bernabei-McNamee told her, “You guys are going to be tough.”
“In that moment, I was like, ‘We’re going to be okay … We just go up and lose to an ACC team by [only 14] on their court with a young roster,’” Griffith said on Columbia’s “Morningside Hoops” podcast this week. “It was really just the beginning for us.”
In addition to being an inflection point for the program, Thursday’s win against the Eagles suggested that this season’s team is turning a corner. Throughout the season, Griffith hasn’t shied away from admitting that her team is young, inexperienced and still learning how to win. The Lions aren’t always consistent, needing stirring second-half comebacks in multiple games this season. They are creating a winning tradition and culture in real time, in contrast with teams that already have established traditions and an expectation that they will win every game.
For the first time all season, Griffith said, her team “took a lot of pride in the little things” against Boston College, and that helped the Lions claw back from another early deficit. The Eagles led just three seconds into the game on a 3-pointer by Cameron Swartz, who would score 15 points in the first half. By the mid-second quarter, Boston College led 31-14, and the Eagles used 20 paint points and 11 second-chance points to enter halftime up 15.
Asked afterward how the players responded to the deficit, First-Team All-Ivy guard/forward Kaitlyn Davis glanced at Griffith, then wryly responded, “I mean, have you seen our season? … It came in handy, the experience.”
Columbia rattled off a 10-0 run to start the third quarter, weathered a Boston College run, and methodically chipped away. It tied the game with 5:41 left in the fourth quarter and took its first lead on the final field goal, a layup by junior guard Jaida Patrick with 12 seconds left.
But the upset was not the typical story of an underdog catching fire from 3-point range. In fact, the Ivy League’s second-most prolific 3-point shooting team shot 0-for-20 from 3-point range, becoming just the second team since 2009-10 to shoot that poorly and win. Instead, the victory came down to defense, togetherness and leadership from the player who shot the worst from deep, Second Team All-Ivy guard Abbey Hsu.
Columbia held Boston College to just 18 second-half points on 21% shooting and forced six turnovers, including a pivotal one with 16 seconds left and Columbia down one that set up Patrick’s layup. Nine of Columbia’s 14 fast-break points came in the fourth quarter, which helped them convert six of eight 2-pointers in that period. “It’s been the defense that’s willed themselves back into this game,” play-by-play announcer Lance Medow marveled on the broadcast.
That final turnover, which came when Davis and freshman guard Kitty Henderson trapped Swartz near midcourt to force a tie-up, also showed how connected and in sync Columbia was during its comeback. Griffith told Medow postgame that she emphasized that teamwork in her pregame speech:
“I was like, ‘Have you ever seen an eagle hunt with another eagle? But you see lions all the time in their pride hunting … We just got to stick together, especially when our backs [are] against the wall.’ And I thought they did that tonight.”
The Lions hunted together, from the late-game trap to the help defense that earned them eight blocks on the night. It was visible, too, on Patrick’s go-ahead basket, which came off of a drive from Davis.
“KD kind of saw a lane and she took what was given to her because no one can really guard her,” said Patrick, who finished with 15 points, 13 rebounds and two blocks. “So she saw a lane, took it and then I just—”
“She made herself available … and I knew she was going to sink it,” interjected Davis, who had 21 points, six rebounds, three steals and three blocks.
Davis and Patrick led the way for the Lions on Thursday, shooting a combined 52% from the field to counterbalance a rough night for Hsu. Hsu ranks third in the Ivy League in scoring and, as a sophomore, already holds the Columbia career record for made 3-pointers, but she had only nine points on Thursday on 3-for-15 shooting from the field and 0-for-8 from behind the arc.
Hsu chipped in nine rebounds and two blocks, but her aggressive mentality was what Columbia needed most. “She doesn’t love the spotlight,” Griffith said this week, but Hsu has recently embraced her role as a star and leader on the court. During conference play, Griffith had threatened to bench Hsu if she took fewer than 20 shots in a game, and Hsu responded by dialing up her attacking presence. On Thursday, her willingness to take open jumpers all game pleased Griffith so much that she gave her a low-five after a miss.
“Our team, and especially as of late, has really ridden Abbey’s mentality and her killer instinct,” Griffith said postgame. “… She just did the things that we needed her to do. Screen assists, hard runs, drawing people, just wouldn’t give up even if the ball wasn’t going through the net. And I think that just bred confidence to everybody to see that she was not going to quit …
“I’ve said this to a lot of people before and to her teammates and to her: She has the power to inspire people when she plays. And I thought that’s what she did tonight in the second half.”
It matters that Hsu is increasingly comfortable being the face of the program because, for a program on the rise in New York City, the lights are only going to get brighter. The Columbia administration sought to give the team a bigger stage by applying to host every round of the WNIT, an opportunity that schools have to pay for. And the secret is getting out about Columbia’s play, drawing crowds and creating a buzz not seen in Griffith’s first few years.
When Columbia hosted Princeton on Feb. 23, Griffith said, Princeton head coach Carla Berube saw the nearly 2,000 fans in attendance for a weekday 5 p.m. tipoff and asked, “How did you get all these people here?”
Against Boston College, the crowd was animated throughout, even though Columbia trailed for all but 15 seconds. One fan brought a giant cutout of Henderson’s face and held it aloft, including during the court-storming. They all stood to cheer when Patrick outraced multiple defenders to score in transition in the second quarter, even though the deficit was still 15 points. And they rained boos on the officials for calling a foul on guard Nicole Stephens with 86 seconds to play.
“I think the fan base here that we have built is pretty great. Not a lot of women’s teams get to have such a great fan base,” said Patrick, who is in her first season at Columbia after transferring from Duke. “And I think that we rightfully created that, and I think they’re bought in and they’re true supporters.”
“It’s just been really special to see how much people are attached to this program right now,” Griffith added.
Those fans will get at least one more home game, against Seton Hall on Monday in the Elite Eight. Regardless of the outcome, advancing this far is hugely beneficial for Columbia’s player development, confidence and momentum going into next season. The Lions have gotten two more weeks of practice time this month than most of their Ivy League peers, not to mention the experience of winning in pressure-filled environments, and will return all but one player.
Before their first-round win over Holy Cross, Griffith and her staff talked to the players about programs such as Mississippi and Delaware, which were in the WNIT Final Four last year and made the NCAA Tournament this season. “This journey that we’ve had, it’s just going to make us ready for exactly what we need to be next year,” Griffith said on Thursday.
Griffith isn’t surprised about Columbia’s successful season or rapid ascent in the Ivy League, though she wasn’t sure when the breakthrough would happen. She was confident when she took the job that she could build a winning program, despite its previous struggles, and she sold recruits on the idea that they could break records at Columbia.
With this late-season run through the WNIT on top of a historic season, the rebuild appears complete—yet Griffith and Columbia are far from finished.
“We haven’t arrived yet,” she said on Columbia’s podcast. “We have done a lot of things that are groundbreaking for this program, but not groundbreaking … for the league and competitors in our league. And then also nationally, we have a long way to go to be the program that I envision that we could be.”
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 and FanSided.