For the second time in three road games, the Colorado Buffaloes blew a lead of 14 points or more on the road in the final ten minutes of the game. The second two-point loss of the season at the hands of the Utah Utes dropped the Buffs to 2-7 on the road in Pac-12 play; a mark just as bad as last year's team. Overall, CU finished the regular season at 21-10, with a 16-1 record at the Coors Events Center and a 5-9 record everywhere else.
Once again, the offense completely shut down in crunch time, as CU failed to score for over five minutes after taking a 45-31 lead over the Utes at the under-8 timeout. By the time the Buffs scored their next basket, Utah had gone on a 19-0 run and led 50-45.
We've seen this kind of offensive failure before, be it the SMU game, the first Utah game, the game at Stanford (which the Buffs were lucky to win), the Oregon State game, the USC game, or even the big win against Arizona, in which the Buffs scored just two points in the final six minutes. If there is a fatal flaw to this team, other than turnovers, it's the ability to hold on to big leads, especially away from home. After winning the Auburn and CSU games going away, CU hasn't really closed out anyone away from Coors Events Center. The Buffs will hopefully not be returning to the friendly confines of the CEC this season, which means they're going to have to figure out a way to win these types of games if they don't want their season to end early.
Both teams were incredibly cold in the first half, with CU trailing for most of it. The Buffs were able to hang in the game by virtue of three point shooting, particularly from Tre'Shaun Fletcher, and they managed to take a one point lead going into the intermission despite scoring just 21 points on 22% shooting.
The game remained tight for the first few minutes of the second half, with Utah holding a 31-29 lead with just over 14 minutes to go. That was when the Buffs went on one of their more impressive runs of the season, scoring 16 consecutive points to take a 45-31 lead with 8:15 to go. Tory Miller and Wesley Gordon were dominant inside, and Thomas Akyazili made two beautiful layups that gave the Buffs all the momentum.
Coming out of the under-8 timeout, Utah missed a free throw, which resulted in an offensive rebound by Jakob Poeltl, which resulted in an incredibly lucky bank shot three-pointer by Jordan Loveridge. The Buffs immediately turned it over, resulting in a layup for Utah, and the 14 point advantage was down to eight. The momentum shifted in that sequence, and the Buffs were unable to get it back, as they failed to score again until there were 2 minutes remaining in the game, by which point Utah had gone on a 19-0 run.
Losing a lead of that size with eight minutes remaining in the game would have been shocking, if the Buffs hadn't lost a 15 point advantage at USC two weeks ago. It was deja vu all over again, and it was almost predictable. From the moment Poeltl grabbed the offensive rebound at 45-32, I had a feeling of dread. It seemed like one misstep was all that was needed for the team to fall off the cliff, and that was exactly what happened.
Josh Scott got the better of Poeltl when the two met in Boulder in early January, but the Austrian was clearly superior tonight. Poeltl finished with 16 points, 13 rebounds and five blocked shots. Scott had 11 points in his final regular season game, but shot just 3-13 from the field and failed repeatedly to finish shots at the rim that are usually easy for him. Tre'Shaun Fletcher actually led the Buffs in scoring with 12 points, including a 3-4 mark from behind the arc, yet he was conspicuously absent from the floor when Utah was making their run. Tory Miller had seven points and six rebounds and was a major contributor to CU's second half run.
The good news is that this loss wasn't fatal for the Buffs by any stretch. They were guaranteed the 5th seed in the Pac-12 tournament whether they won or lost, and a win would have only helped them with NCAA tournament seeding. Unless they lose to Washington State on Wednesday, the Buffs seem to be a lock for the dance.
However, this loss stings, just like the other close losses this year do. This team won as many regular season games as any in CU history, but they could have won far more if they had been able to execute better down the stretch with the lead. 21-10 could easily have been 24-7. Then again, how many times out of a hundred does George King make that buzzer beater that sent the Washington State game to double overtime? I'm not about to sit here and call this team snakebitten.
There were some missed calls down the stretch, as the Buffs definitely got a "different whistle", as Tad Boyle would call it, than they would have at home, but in the end this loss is squarely on the team in black and not the men in stripes. You should never lose a game that you lead by fourteen points with eight minutes remaining, no matter who you're playing. The Buffs had a chance to score a huge win for their resume tonight, but it wound up being just another frustrating road loss in a season that has been full of them.
Hopefully they're able to put it behind them and use it as a learning experience, because the odds are good that they'll find themselves in a similar position at some point in the next few weeks, and with quite a bit more than pedigree at stake.
The 5th-seeded Buffs will take on 12th-seeded Washington State on Wednesday afternoon in the first round of the Pac-12 tournament in Las Vegas. CU is 2-0 against the Cougars this year, with both victories coming by the slimmest of margins.