MAPLEWOOD, NJ -- Although there have been both peaks and valleys so far this season, a young Columbia boys basketball team has already weathered several challenges and looks to be in good shape as the Essex County Tournament seeding meeting approaches.
The Cougars jumped out to a 12-point lead after one quarter, then broke the contest open in the third quarter and went on to a 70-49 victory over Shabazz on Saturday.
The victory was the third in a row for Columbia (8-6) after the Cougars had lost three in a row before that. It was Columbia's final game before the county tournament is seeded on Monday night.
"We could end up seeded in the top eight," Columbia head coach Eugene "Bam" Robinson said. "No one would have expected that in the pre-season. This is basically last year's JV team. We have no seniors."
Nigel Garcia and Chris Darcelin each scored 16 points and Josiah Lawful finished with 14 points for Columbia, which ran out to a 23-11 lead after one quarter. Garcia and Darcelin each notched eight points in the first quarter.
In the third quarter, Shabazz was within 10 points when Columbia launched an 18-3 spurt to take a 62-37 lead and put the game away. In that spurt, Lawful scored five points and freshman point guard Jalen Robinson (Bam's son) scored four points, made three steals and handed out two assists.
"A game like this gave everyone a chance to play. We used a lot of subs and just wanted to play clean basketball," Coach Robinson said. "I hope we are peaking at the right time now."
Robinson pointed out that, in addition to the basic challenge of having such a young team, Columbia is playing in the Super Essex Conference's upper division this season, and they endured an unusually long stretch of road games early in the campaign.
"We are in a top division where there is a lot of tough basketball," Robinson said. "After we opened the season at home against Montclair, we played nine road games in a row. For us to get through that stretch with such a young team is a nice accomplishment."
And while there are still times that the Cougars do play like a callow team susceptible to an unforced error now and then, there are plenty of other times when Columbia executes superbly, makes the extra pass, steps in to take the charge and takes the smart shot rather than a forced shot.
"This is an unselfish team," Robinson said. "When we're playing the right way, we are a lot of fun to watch."