Columbia coach Kyle Smith won't admit to holding any special potion over Villanova. It just seems that way. Smith was on the coaching staff of St. Mary's when the Gaels upset Villanova to reach the Sweet 16 in 2010.
On Tuesday, before a packed crowd at Villanova's Pavilion, Smith pressed the right buttons again, this time in the head seat as his Lions pulled off a mild 75-57 upset over Villanova, beating the Wildcats for the first time since a 76-64 victory on Dec. 29, 1969.
The win was Columbia's first against a Big East foe since beating Seton Hall in November of 1985.
"I have no idea what it is, but this is huge for us," Smith said. "We've had some rough games in tough situations. We played some Big East teams pretty tough, too, like UConn. We lost a lot of tight games last year. Hopefully, we went through that, but this one should help our confidence tremendously."
Columbia was led by a game-high 21 points from Alex Rosenberg and 15 points from Steve Frankoski. The Lions also received a huge boost on 4-for-4 shooting from 3-point range in the second half by Grant Mullins, who finished with 14. Brian Barbour closed the door by going 8 for 8 from the free-throw line in the second half.
Columbia was 7 for 14 from 3-point range in the second half and made its last 21 free throws.
"We knew going into the game this was not a team we wanted to get behind on," Villanova coach Jay Wright said. "Midway through the second half, you get down nine or 10 on those guys, they're going to hold the clock, they're going to run the clock down. Our turnovers and missed free throws early just killed us. It's tough to come from behind when you're down on a team like that."
Villanova got 13 points from James Bell and 11 from freshman Ryan Arcidiacono.
Columbia went into halftime holding a 26-22 lead, despite shooting 9 for 27 from the floor. The Lions led throughout most of the first half behind nine points from Frankoski.
Villanova didn't help itself. The Wildcats turned the ball over 12 times in the first half, including a string of three straight possessions that ended on turnovers.
With 5:03 left in the half, a Bell layup gave Villanova a 21-19 lead. But from there, the Wildcats turned the ball over five times and went 1 for 4 from the floor and 1 for 5 from the line on their next nine possessions as Columbia regained the lead. The Lions went on a 17-5 run after the Bell basket to take control of the game.
Villanova limped off the floor in the first half after going 3 for 9 from the free-throw line.
The Wildcats, however, did pull to within 49-44 on an Arcidiacono 3 with 7:11 left to play. Villanova's pressing and quick baskets off steals seemed to create a momentary lapse for Columbia. But the Lions responded with a 14-4 run to seize back control.
"We turned the ball over and gave them the 3 there. That got them to within five, but we got a couple of big 3s, and we didn't take the quick shot," Smith said. "We calmed ourselves down, and we were able to get some penetration and kick out. We made every free throw, and I think we were ridiculous down the stretch. I think we got good looks, and our defense did a tremendous job defending their 3 and we were able to ward them off."
Barbour made six-straight free throws and Mullins canned two 3s during that stretch, and Villanova never got within 10 points again.
"They shot the ball great from 3, and we couldn't make a 3," Wright said. "I wouldn't say that I expected this at all, but you know it's always possible when you turn the ball over and you don't make free throws. We turned the ball over a lot, when you do that and you don't make free throws, you can lose to a good team."