"Escape" is too light a word for what the Colorado Buffaloes did on Wednesday night. They were eight seconds away from suffering their worst loss of the season to conference basement dwelling Washington State. Without the services of team MVP Josh Scott, the Buffs squandered a halftime lead and seemed doomed to an overtime defeat before George King rescued them at the last possible moment with the biggest three-point buzzer beater since you know when.
It could have been the kind of loss that makes an impact on Selection Sunday. Instead, it's merely another home win in a game the Buffs should have won. The particulars will hopefully be lost on the selection committee. Two and a half hours before the final buzzer sounded, it seemed like things were going to be a little easier.
The Buffs started the game hot from the floor and got off to a 28-17 lead midway through the first half. It seemed like this was going to be the easy victory many had predicted. The Cougars had other ideas. A 12-3 run cut the lead to 31-29 and the Buffs never led by more than ten again.
Still, CU recovered and led 41-32 at halftime. There was still no real nervousness amongst the crowd of 7,330 - the smallest for a conference game since 2012.
Washington State made their run midway through the second half, and by the ten minute mark the Buffs were in deep trouble. The two teams would be locked within one or two possessions for the entire remainder of the game, including both overtimes.
CU had the ball for the entire final minute of the game with the score tied at 67, but their two possessions resulted only in two missed jump shots by Josh Fortune. The Buffs were going to overtime against the worst team in the conference.
The Cougars led for most of the first overtime period, with the teams trading baskets back and forth. Every time CU would tie, Washington State would take the lead back. After George King missed his first free throw of the night with ten seconds left, the Buffs were forced to foul Que Johnson, who went to the line with the Cougars up by two with a chance to seal the game.
Johnson made the first, but missed the second, and King grabbed the rebound with the Buffs down 78-75. He dribbled to the top of the key, paused, then drove to the right wing where he was met by Josh Hawkinson. King stepped back and got off a fadeaway three pointer just over the fingertips of Hawkinson as time expired. It went in, and the Buffs were still alive.
The final score might indicate that the Buffs pulled away in the second overtime, but that only happened in the final minute. The Cougars missed their final four shots from the field and Xavier Talton made four free throws after his teammates had missed three earlier in the overtime. When it was over, the Buffs were victorious by a score of 88-81.
Here are three things we learned tonight:
1. The Buffs are not the same team without Josh Scott
The absence of the team's senior leader was felt tonight, as the Buffs were uncharacteristically outrebounded by four and gave up 50% shooting to the worst team in the conference. Scott's status for Saturday's game is uncertain, but if the Buffs don't put together a better performance on the glass and on defense it's unlikely they walk out of Coors with a win against Washington.
2. George King might be the guy next year
At times in the second half, it seemed like no one on the Buffs wanted to take a shot. Their final two possessions of regulation were a mess and ended with bad looks. When King got the rebound off the missed free throw with ten seconds left in overtime, he was supposed to pass to one of the guards. He didn't. "I called my own number", said King in the post-game press conference. "I'm lucky it went in. I probably would have gotten yelled at if it didn't." While the shot he took was only a good one because it went in, the fact that King wanted the ball in his hands and no one else's when the game was on the line is an encouraging sign. When Josh Scott is no longer the go-to offensive option next year, it might help to have one guy on the team who actually wants the ball.
3. Xavier Talton can be a leader if he has to be
Talton, a reserve for most of his senior season, got the start tonight and played 44 minutes out of a possible 50. He was almost always on the court down the stretch and provided some much needed stability and leadership for a Buffs team that was far from firing on all cylinders. He tied his season high with 13 points and collected three steals, and his four free throws in the second overtime sealed the game.
The Buffs have very little time to recover, as they take on the Washington Huskies at noon on Saturday, with a chance to pass them in the Pac-12 standings. Both teams enter the game at 7-5 in conference.