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NCAA Basketball: Washington at Colorado Ron Chenoy-USA TODAY Sports

The Colorado Buffaloes headed into their Washington trip with NCAA Tournament aspirations, but those are likely gone after the Buffs dropped a can’t-lose game to Washington State, 73-69.

The 2-3 zone defense has served Colorado well this season, but it was a mistake to use it against a prolific three-point shooting team like Washington State. It takes perfect coordination and communication by the defense to not concede easy looks outside. Colorado’s defense was far from perfect early on and the Cougars could get seemingly every shot they wanted. Luckily, Wazzu couldn’t hit many of those shots and they never built much of a lead, though it is troubling that it took so long to adjust.

Once Colorado switched to man defense, the immediately saw positive changes. Not that a simple defensive change was the cause, but the Buffs seemed to perk up and play with significantly more energy. After scrambling on defense in the first ten minutes, they were now pressuring shooters and forcing turnovers. The improved energy translated to offense as the Buffs went from turnover-prone to getting clean looks inside and out, at least long enough to build a small lead. McKinley Wright led the way as usual (7 points, 4 assists and 3 rebounds in the half) and was supported mostly by Namon Wright (10 points). The Buffs went into halftime down 30-29 after a sloppy final few minutes to conclude the half.

The sloppy play continued in the second, but while that favored Colorado to start, it was their poor play that doomed. As much as Dallas Walton dominated in the post with his emerging post game and feathery touch, Colorado struggled elsewhere. What should have been a season-best night for Walton, CU was hampered by disjointed play that seemed to end in either a defensive foul or a turnover, especially when they needed a bucket to answer whatever run Wazzu had made.

Washington State shot a putrid 7-29 from deep, but the Cougars stuck around for far too long and made a game of this, and that was because of Malachi Flynn. Colorado hasn’t been burned much this season by elite guards, but Flynn torched them like he was born for the task. No one could stay in front of him and he dropped bucket after bucket, including the go-ahead shot in the final minute and the free throw that proved to be the game-winner.

If you watched the game, you know that Washington State didn’t just win the game — CU lost it. Flynn was fantastic, but it shouldn’t be ignored that the Buffs didn’t adjust late in the game and that Tad Boyle badly mishandled the rotation. As good as he’s been in his new role this season, Dom Collier arguably had his worst game of his career and there was no reason for him to play in the second half, let alone the final thirteen minutes of the game. Walton was also taken out for an extended period in the final minutes, which proved critical because he was the only reliable scorer tonight. All that, plus the 2-3 zone that helped Wazzu to an early lead, spelled disaster for a Colorado team that couldn’t spare such a loss.

On to the next one, I suppose. The Buffs could potentially make up for this loss with a road win over Washington (Saturday, 6:00), but that won’t happen unless they play with improved energy and focus.