The agony and the ecstasy of Megan Griffith — Christie Sides talks Indiana Fever

The IX: Basketball Wednesday with Howard Megdal, March 20, 2024

Happy Basketball Wednesday, presented by the BIG EAST Conference. I’ve been bringing my younger daughter, Juliet, to work assignments this season. She’s a basketball junkie and quite good at capturing video, allowing me to focus on everything else. In press conferences, she’s all business. But I knew that the tenor of those was about to change, and explained to her as we drove down to the MAAC Tournament in Atlantic City last week that every single game from here on in, someone’s season was going to end because of it. And the resulting emotional range of basketball changes, this time of year, exponentially.

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That is what I love most about this time of year, much as my heart goes out to every single young woman and head coach seeing something that matters so much to them come to an end. It is knowing that we’re witnessing the best athletes in the sport, who trained their entire lives, thousands and thousands of reps to reach this one moment where a choice or a leap or the bounce off a rim will determine the way they feel about the pinnacle of their careers for the rest of their lives. Juliet got to see it firsthand, with Fairfield, who needed to win its conference tournament to earn an NCAA bid despite 30+ wins, nearly watching it slip away to Niagara’s full-court press, only to rescue their season in overtime, dancing and mugging for the camera, their dreams coming true.

But perhaps no greater example of this emotional dichotomy exists than in the weekend that Megan Griffith, coach of the Columbia Lions, just experienced.

You will not meet a stronger, tougher, Philly-er person than Griffith, King of Prussia’s own who went to Columbia, starred as a player, and after a coaching career on the bench as a Princeton assistant, came back to her alma mater to build something entirely new there: a consistent, winning program.

This is precisely what she’s done, but with a caveat: the Princeton program she also helped build first has, as a result, a head start. The Columbia Lions are the Brooklyn Dodgers of the 1940s and 1950s, and Princeton the New York Yankees. The difference, until this year, is the nation only got to see one of those teams, Princeton, in the national spotlight. Both the Dodgers and Yankees regularly reached the World Series. Columbia was relegated to the WNIT last year, and after losing in the Ivy final to Princeton again on Saturday, it appeared likely they’d suffer a similar fate.

“I can’t say enough about Abbey Hsu,” Griffith said of this team’s signature star, after railing — rightly, in my view — against rewarding a power conference mediocrity over a Columbia team that has proven itself in every possible way. “She’s one of the best players in the country, and she needs to be seen and I really hope the committee gives her and this team a chance because if we just keep being in this spot, we’re not growing the game.”

In that moment, Griffith was resigned to a season that fell short of her hopes and dreams for her team, the program that’s been hers for half her life. We know this because, one day later, Columbia’s name flashed on the screen during the ESPN bracket reveal — the play-in game, Wednesday night against Vanderbilt, one of those SEC teams — and the championship culture and wins Griffith has brought to Columbia led to this tangible result: the Lions are about to play an Division I NCAA Tournament game for the first time ever.

Griffith woke up Sunday “a wreck”, she said later. Emotions overflowing. But it didn’t stop the work. She did the responsible thing and met with her team after the loss to Princeton and laid out the reality. Her team “handled it like grown women”, Griffith reflected later. They gathered to watch, because hope was not extinguished, and so they could be there for one another no matter what happened. And then: ecstasy.

I asked her whether she thought about how half of her life — and the entire adult portion of it — had led to this moment.

“I literally said that to myself,” Griffith said. “‘Wow, this is how long I’ve been at Columbia.’ I said I wanted to come here and have a championship culture, build a championship program, not a one-off winning a championship. And so this is just us showing everybody from a recruiting standpoint, alumni standpoint, a community standpoint that this is sustained success and we can keep doing this.”

March in the province of basketball lifers, every single entry on your bracket a team filled with hopes and dreams and almost unimaginably hard work. And every single game is waged with the stakes set, as Griffith put it: so they can keep doing this, just a little longer, just a little more before the final buzzer sounds in a few weeks April 7 in Cleveland. The pain of seeing it end comes for all but the champion. The joy before that, though, is just as real. And it lasts forever.

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Five at The IX, Christie Sides, Indiana Fever

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By: Joey Dillon, @JoeyDillon, Freelance Tennis Writer
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Written by Howard Megdal

Howard is the founder of The Next and editor-in-chief.