From the Bench to the Floor and Back Again: Casey’s return to starter stardom
Unless you are Riley Casey, CC ’21 and a guard for the women’s basketball team, a non-conference game against Cal State Fullerton likely wouldn’t stand out in the schedule. This game, however, marks Casey’s return to the starting lineup following eight straight games of coming off the bench. The first eight games of the Columbia women’s basketball season.
45 seconds into the contest, Columbia has the ball on offense. The Lions snatch an offensive rebound and Casey bolts to the three-point line before commanding the ball from her teammate. She gets the ball, shoots, and swishes a three—Columbia’s first basket of the day.
The crowd erupts, but Casey barely flinches before transitioning into her defensive stance. “Good start for the Lions and great start for Riley Casey,” the commentator notes.
Having Casey introduced to the starting line-up this late into the season may not appear unusual, considering this is only her second year of college basketball. Casey’s first season in the Light Blue uniform, though, was nothing to ignore.
After starting in 26 out of 29 games, Casey ended the 2017–18 season with the second-most minutes and as the team’s second-highest scorer, bested only by then-senior powerhouse Camille Zimmerman, CC ’18. Casey, most notably, finished with the most made three pointers on the team.
Casey’s impressive shooting stems from practice that began long before she stepped onto Columbia’s campus.
“I couldn’t really shoot in middle school,” Casey said. “Then I just worked really hard freshman year of high school, and my sister is a really good shooter, too.”
Casey comes from a long lineage of basketball players. Both parents, Sean and Jill Casey, played college basketball at Hobart and William Smith Colleges, respectively. Her older sister Taylor currently starts for the Washington and Lee women’s basketball team. This basketball talent spreads to her extended family, too: as her cousin Ryan Kelly played for Duke and now plays professional basketball overseas after a brief stint in the NBA.
Casey finished her senior year of high-school basketball, her third straight year as a captain, with a school-record 111 made three-pointers. It seems that Casey’s hard work freshman year paid off.
Statistics like these certainly caught the eye of college coaches, but Light Blue head coach Megan Griffith, CC ’07, knew Casey long before she stepped foot onto the high-school court, back when Griffith was still repping black and orange at Princeton.
“I’ve known Riley since she was 12 or 13,” Griffith said. “Riley went to the boarding school 20 minutes from Princeton. [She and her dad] would come to all of our camps. As she got older Riley would come and take the high-school camps.”
When it came time to recruit for the Class of 2021, Casey’s hustle and knowledge of the game made her one of Griffith’s first calls. Now, after knowing each other for more than six years, Casey and Griffith represent the same team.
Although Casey arrived at Columbia an impressive three-point shooter, there was still room for improvement, especially regarding the versatility of her shot. She stands at 5’8”, so adjusting to the size of her competitors in college required her to be more creative and confident with her shooting. This shift in offensive approach is something that, according to her and Griffith, she is still improving.
“For Riley it was just about shot selection. Feeling good about getting shots in rhythm versus having to shoot from really far behind the arc,” Griffith said. “To me, all that stuff comes with confidence.”
Coming into the preseason before her sophomore year, Casey suffered an injury that prevented her from participating in important team-chemistry-building practices. This setback, combined with the addition of dynamic first-year players such as Mikayla Markham (CC ’22) and Sienna Durr (CC ’22) caused Casey to start on the bench for the majority of the Lions’ non-conference games.
Naturally, coming off the bench led to some shifts in Casey’s play along with the goals she wanted to accomplish when it was her time to enter the game.
“Trying to come in and make an impact,” Casey said when asked about any changes that came from coming off the bench. “We always talk about, in the first 55 seconds of the game, ‘Are you doing anything productive or to help the team?’ I’d say that was a big thing I was thinking about.”
Despite having her come off the bench for the first eight games, Griffith never wavered in her belief that Casey was going to reclaim her starting spot.
“As the season naturally evolved, I always knew that Riley was going to get her spot back, and it was going to be a different spot,” Griffith said.
Casey’s role on the team has indeed changed. During her first year, Casey served as the primary point guard for the team. Now, however, with the addition of Markham, Casey has had the chance to step into her natural role as a shooter while also remaining a playmaker.
“We always knew that we’d be really good when Mikayla and Riley could play together,” Griffith said. “Then Riley could play her more natural position, which is not a true point guard. She’s a scorer. She’s a scoring guard.”
Casey, who has a quiet nature, will probably not be the loudest person on the court. She may not be the person who can be heard from the stands. Although her shooting ability and commanding presence helps to establish her voice on the court, her vocal leadership is an aspect of her game that she is still developing.
“Riley does have a little bit of a quiet nature,” Griffith said. “I think that it’s quiet, but intense. I think for her to take a big step as a leader in this program, a voice has to come along with it.”
Being able to focus on her role as a shooting guard has certainly worked for Casey and the Light Blue this season. Casey leads the team with a total of 54 made three-point shots so far this season, already beating her previous season total of 47 made three-point shots. Despite not starting every game, Casey ranks second on the team in points, just behind Durr. For the second year in a row, Casey leads the team in made three-pointers.
“I always knew she was a playmaker—especially when she was younger.” Griffith said. “It’s fun to see how her game is continuing to evolve.”