MAPLEWOOD, NJ -- There were at least three junctures during the course of Saturday's game when it looked like the Columbia boys basketball team might be about to get run out of its own gym by Linden.
Linden took a 10-point lead in the first quarter, but Columbia battled back. Linden again took a 10-point lead in the second quarter, and again the Cougars clawed their way back. Very often, teams that have to stage multiple comebacks in the same game eventually run out of steam.
But Columbia, looking like the more energized team after halftime, ended up being the ones to run Linden out of the gym. The Cougars turned the game around with an epic 19-3 run to defeat Linden, 64-54, before a noisy crowd at Columbia High School.
Senior guard Dylan Jones scored 21 points and came up with four steals to lead Columbia (6-3) in both categories, but the Cougar comeback was truly a team effort, the result of sharing the ball, making the extra pass, bearing down on defense, attacking the glass and coming up with almost every loose ball on the court.
"We battled back. I'm proud of 'em," said Columbia head coach Eugene "Bam" Robinson. "We lost a game at Montclair Thursday night (66-53) that was so out of character for us. That night, when there was a loose ball to be had, it looked like our guys were treating it like a business decision whether to get on the floor and go for the ball."
Robinson showed his team plenty of game video between that game and the Linden matchup.
"That got us refocused," Robinson said. "We showed them the video, put them to the test against a storied program like Linden and challenged them to be that team we know they can be."
After Linden (7-5) scored on a backdoor layup by Dremar Hopkinson to open the fourth quarter, Columbia trailed, 47-42. Forward Brandon Dalembert, who led Columbia with seven rebounds, sank one of two free throws with 7:13 left to cut the margin to four, but that was only a hint of things to come for the Cougars.
Marcus Cosemus went up over taller opponents in the lane for a putback for Columbia, then Marques Thompkins made a steal and turned it into a layup for the Cougars to tie the game, 47-47, with 5:53 left. The game was knotted for the next minute before Jones drove the baseline with authority for a dazzling reverse layup that gave Columbia a 49-47 lead with 4:42 to go. Eighteen seconds later, Jones swiped the ball and soared in for a layup and a 51-47 Columbia lead.
"After halftime, we all pushed ourselves and boosted our energy," Jones said. "Coach told me to just keep shooting with confidence. He said, 'Be ready to shoot'."
Robinson had admonished his team about a tendency to take some ill-advised shots in previous games.
"We were bailing teams out with quick 3-pointers," Robinson said. "But, with Dylan, I give him a little bit more rope when it comes to shooting the ball, because I think he's one of the better shooters in the state."
Linden was still within striking distance at 53-50 when Thompkins grabbed an offensive rebound in the lane and passed it out to Jones, who drained a 3-pointer with 2:00 left for a six-point Cougar lead. Jones later capped the 19-3 spree by converting a feed from Nigel Garcia into a layup with a minute left to extend Columbia's lead to 61-50.
Garcia turned in a strong all-around effort with 12 points, four rebounds, three assists and three steals. And center Jun Harriman came up huge for Columbia in the third quarter, keeping the Cougars in the game with eight of his 11 points. Columbia was down, 37-27, early in the third quarter, but Harriman scored seven points during a 12-3 Columbia run that brought the Cougars back within one with 1:04 left in the third.
"We challenged Harriman to be more active like that," Robinson said. "We told him to take advantage of his God-given talent and be active on the glass."
Harriman tied for the team lead in assists Saturday with three. Thompkins finished with nine points and six rebounds.
Amir Williams scored 23 points to lead Linden, which was hot shooting the ball early in the game, before Columbia came out of its man-to-man and went to an active zone that limited the Tigers' ability to make the backdoor cuts that were leading to layups in the first half.