With Tuesday's loss to Penn now behind them, the men's basketball team begins the second half of the league season with "must-win" attached to each of the remaining games.
Another misstep and the Tigers will be all-but-mathematically eliminated from postseason contention for the first time in four seasons. Princeton (13-9 overall, 5-2 Ivy League), however, cannot rely on the rest of the league to roll over and make the road easy for them.
"Right now we basically have our backs against a wall," senior forward Mason Rocca said. "It's not a good feeling — even if we win the rest of our games, Penn still has to lose one in order for us to have a chance."
One of the individuals looking to ensure that the Tigers' March 7 game against Penn has no league title implications is Columbia forward Craig Austin. He will lead his team against Princeton tonight at 7:30 p.m. in Jadwin Gym. Austin scored a game-high 24 points in his team's 53-46 loss to Princeton Jan. 29 in New York.
In their first contest this season, the Lions and Tigers were close throughout the first half, with Princeton taking a 27-22 edge at halftime. Things got even closer early in the second half, as the two teams battled back and forth.
An Austin three-pointer with ten minutes, fifty-nine seconds remaining in regulation put the Lions up by three and made it look like the game would go down to the wire. Sophomore guard Mike Bechtold responded with a three of his own on the Tigers' next possession. That began a 14-2 Princeton deluge that put away the Lions (10-11, 4-4) and pushed the score to an insurmountable 47-38 with 2:36 remaining.
"It was a good start for us," Austin said. "We felt we made some mistakes that we shouldn't have and they made some plays at the end to win the game."
The Lions may be in the middle of the Ivy pack, but have beaten their travelling partner, Cornell, twice. Feb. 12 presented the Lions with an opportunity to gain sole possession of third-place in the Ivies, but Yale maintained its position, downing Columbia, 65-59.
The emergence of Austin, who is averaging a team-high 14.6 points per game this year, has provided the Lions with a scorer on a team that was decimated by graduations. Columbia's '98-'99 campaign was supposed to be the one in which they would challenge perennial champions Penn and Princeton. Columbia had a senior-heavy squad loaded with experience, looking strong and battle-tested during the preseason.
But success was not to be.
The team faltered, mustering only a sixth-place finish and a 10-win season. Austin represents the team's leading offensive holdover, averaging 6.3 points per game last season. He has since matured into a legitimate scoring threat, hitting on 44 percent of his field goal attempts.
Youth has not proven to be as much a factor as predicted. Besides the constant Austin, the Lions have found a solid outside threat in junior guard Treg Duerksen, who owns a 42 percent shooting average from beyond 18 feet.
"We're happy we are playing better than expected," Austin said. "But there are a bunch of games that we feel we should have won."
The Tigers will be looking to shut down Austin — who was 9 for 16 in the first matchup against the Tigers — and deny the three-pointer to Duerksen, while reestablishing an offense that was often absent on Tuesday. In addition, getting the ball down low to sophomore center Chris Young will be a priority.
"We have to take away Chris Young," Austin said. "We can't allow him to get off on us like he has in the past."
Cornell (8-13, 1-7) plays at Jadwin on Saturday night, and will be looking to avenge its 59-44 loss to Princeton on January 28. That game saw another run — similar to Columbia's — that pulled the Big Red to within four of the Tigers with 10:14 remaining. But junior guard C.J. Chapman came up big for Princeton, nailing one of his five three-pointers to ignite a 10-0 Tiger run that put the game out of reach.
"We have to try and avoid the stretches in the second half where they tightened things up," Young said. "We have to play strong throughout and once we get a lead maintain it throughout the game."
Chapman ended the game with 19 points and will also be looking to jumpstart his outside shooting this weekend, along with the other members of the Tiger backcourt.