I don't know why my 11 year-old son Ian was willing to ride along with me into Harlem to see two teams predicted to finish in the middle of the pack in their respective leagues, but I'm glad he was. I know what motivated me: a wish for diversion. With days getting darker and temperatures colder, I needed the excitement of a game.
And so we were up in Row T at Columbia University in sleepy Levien Gymnasium to see the Lions take on Marist of the MAAC.
"They are gi-normous," Ian said as Columbia's sturdy front line was introduced. And on the first possession of the game the tallest and brawniest of the group, Corey Ostenowski, hit a three pointer from the wing. He and his teammates then set up a 2-3 zone that would dictate the action for the next 30 minutes of the game.
Marist looked fast, but in the early going Columbia's methodical pick-and-roll offense did not allow the Red Foxes to run. So Marist worked against the zone, mostly through the high post, with little luck or skill. Columbia's defenders deflected passes to the baseline and forced strange shots by Chavaughn Lewis and an atrocious rolling hook by Adam Kemp.
Ian and I watched quietly. I felt out of place. The beginning of a season is filled with possibility, the wish of success, and Columbia especially was playing off this optimism. However, our first time in a gym for the 2012-13 season did not pick on up last winter's excitement when we watched the MAAC tournament (including Fairfield's pulsating upset of Iona) and the College Insider Tournament that visited Fairfield's overheated gym for two rounds in March.
Tonight, Marist fumbled along against the zone, risking only a single three-point shot by Devin Price, a moon ball from the top of the key. On the other end, Columbia's center Mark Cisco overpowered Kemp in what was the best match-up on the floor. Cisco ran the pick and roll with Brian Barbour and stepped into a couple of flat-arc jump shots. As Kemp sagged off him, Cisco went to the block. His right-handed scoop, which drew Kemp's second foul, gave Columbia a 21-14 lead at the under-8:00 timeout.
But Marist regrouped. Back-to-back three pointers by Price and reserve Isaiah Morton provided the first perimeter offense. Capped by a Lewis drive and basket, the 8-0 Marist run tied the game. Ian and I realized at that point plenty of Marist fans had made the trip from Poughkeepsie to Harlem, and they even started a chant of "de-fense" on the last possession of the half. Columbia's Cisco rolled to the hoop yet again for a layup, and Columbia led 29-27 at the half.
We had a good game on our hands. We couldn't argue.
After sitting on the steps in the lobby and eating a makeshift dinner (chips, KitKat bar, half a Subway sandwich each -- nothing that will stop my wife from her worry that I am too skinny), we came back into the gym to see that it had filled up. Harlem-ites were a late-arriving crowd. Marist carried their rejuvenated spirit into the second half. They had the ball out on the break, forcing Columbia to foul. Then Price threw an alley opp over the zone to Kemp that tied the game at 31. Columbia's zone scrambled to cover Marist on the perimeter, where the Red Fox shooters began to look for opportunities. Morton and Price again hit threes sandwiched around an Alex Rosenberg layup for the Lions. At a timeout Ian turned to me. "Suddenly ALL the Marist guys are shooters," he said. "What do you think will happen Columbia's zone?" I asked, trying to get him to think through the next turn of strategy. But Ian was pointing at the Columbia pep band. "That's Pirates of the Caribbean. The song. Listen." I shrugged. "How can you not know that, Dad? They are even waving a pirate flag." Meanwhile, the game teetered back and forth. After the under-12:00 timeout, down by a point, Columbia coach Kyle Smith changed defenses; the Lions went man-to-man. For several possessions, both teams began their offensive sets by running a weave at the top of the key. And while Columbia created a couple of opportunities, including a three from Steve Frankoski, the Marist players, finally able to play off the dribble instead of the pass, appeared to exhale. We could see it. Columbia switched back to the zone, but I wrote in my notes: "It may be too late. Lewis is loose!" The play of Chavaughn Lewis finally pulled me into the game, and into the new season. Lewis, a 6'5" sophomore from Queens, is skinny and slippery. He demands the ball from his teammates, nodding his head, yes, yes, give it to me, I have an idea. Once he has it, he never holds it long. Now, he caught the ball along the baseline, took two quick dribbles, and whipped a right-handed pass sideways across his body to Manny Thomas for an open jump shot. Then, in transition, he ran straight at a Columbia defender and crossed over violently to his left to draw a foul. The next possession, running at a different Columbia player, he crossed right for a layup. Lewis was indeed loose. In the middle of this, Kemp was called for his third and fourth fouls. Coach Smith quickly inserted Cisco to take advantage of Marist's one legitimate big body going to the bench. But Cisco's flat-arced jumpers bounced off the front rim, and Marist coach Chuck Martin received several excellent minutes of defense from 6-10 freshmen, Eric Troug. Columbia did not fold. Their crowd, which continued to grow even in the last minutes of the game, pushed them. And Barbour, a senior guard, made sure that his team found good shots. In the key sequence of the last two minutes, with Marist ahead 63-60, Barbour stole an inbounds pass and after organizing the Lions' offense, found Cisco moving through the lane. Cisco, two steps from the basket, dropped the ball out of bounds, and the air went out of the gym.
Chavaughn's Lewis's last act occurred on the foul line. He shoots the ball with a strange, sideways spin, which must cause him to aim the ball at the right side of the rim to allow it to drift back on line. He hit two foul shots and kissed his fingers. Marist won 67-62. We had walked into a near-empty gym, and now we walked out with a crowd. We would be back for more. Our wish for the new season was in.MARIST 67, at COLUMBIA 62
MARIST 1-2 (0-0) -- M. DiNunno 6-17 2-3 17; C. Lewis 7-15 5-8 19; D. Price 6-18 0-0 16; J. Bowie 2-3 2-2 6; A. Kemp 3-5 0-1 6; T. Curry 0-1 2-2 2; I. Morton 3-6 0-0 9; E. Truog 1-2 2-2 4; M. Thomas 2-3 0-0 5; A. Alexis 0-0 0-0 0; D. Carter 0-1 0-2 0; P. Prinsloo 0-0 0-0 0. Totals 24-54 11-17 67.
COLUMBIA 2-1 (0-0) -- B. Barbour 4-8 10-10 19; M. Cisco 5-14 2-4 12; A. Rosenberg 1-6 2-4 4; G. Mullins 4-5 2-2 11; C. Osetkowski 2-5 3-4 8; S. Frankoski 2-9 0-0 5; Z. En'Wezoh 1-3 0-0 2; I. Cohen 0-0 1-2 1; J. Daniels 0-1 0-0 0; M. Lo 0-0 0-0 0. Totals 19-51 20-26 62.
Three-point goals: MAR 8-20 (D. Price 4-9; T. Curry 0-1; C. Lewis 0-2; I. Morton 3-6; M. Thomas 1-2), COLU 4-12 (B. Barbour 1-1; S. Frankoski 1-6; A. Rosenberg 0-1; C. Osetkowski 1-1; Z. En'Wezoh 0-1; G. Mullins 1-2); Rebounds: MAR 33 (A. Kemp 8), COLU 27 (M. Cisco 5); Assists: MAR 13 (D. Price 3), COLU 7 (B. Barbour 4); Total Fouls -- MAR 17, COLU 15; Fouled Out: MAR-None; COLU-None.