If there was going to be one home game the Colorado Buffaloes would lose, this was always it. The Buffs put in a strong performance and maybe should have beat the Washington Huskies, but it wound up a tough 77-70 loss.
The Buffaloes fell into an early 12-0 hole, and it wasn’t really a surprise. Washington is a senior-heavy team with an excellent coach in Mike Hopkins, and with lengthy and athletic players at every position. They’re easily the best defense in the Pac-12. It didn’t help that CU was missing easy layups, but the Buffs were never going to score unless they figured out the Huskies’ 2-3 zone.
Tad Boyle responded to the zone by working the ball through the high post to get shots at the rim and from deep. Lucas Siewert thrived in this role, partly because Washington dropped back their center to the rim, so he had a bit of space to create. It helped that Tyler Bey (15 points and 9 rebounds) and D’Shawn Schwartz (22 points) carried over their strong performances from Thursday night.
Most of this offensive success came with Shane Gatling (8 points, 6 assists) leading the offense after McKinley Wright suffered a scary injury. Wright never reappeared in the game and we’re waiting to hear the severity of the injury. It looked like he landed hard on his shoulder, and it may have dislocated, but it’s tough to tell what happened.
The Buffs surprisingly held strong on offense without Wright. But while they could replace him with a shooter and force Washington to extend their zone, they had no such success without him on the other end. The CU defense never looked good, even with Wright, but once he left, they completely fell apart.
CU had a frenzied defense buzzing around the floor, but the Huskies are too experienced and poised to panic. All they had to do was pass around the noise to effortlessly generate open looks inside and out. That’s how the Huskies scored 48 first half points on 63% shooting from the field and 61% shooting from deep.
The Buffs spent most of the second half — and most of the game, really — lingering around with a 9 point deficit. Even with the offense performing well considering the circumstances — best defense in the Pac-12, no Kin — they struggled to make a run because Washington answered every basket. The Buffs stopped the three-point barrage, but they couldn’t keep Jaylen Nowell from repeatedly breaking down the defense.
It was only when doppelgangers Schwartz and Daylen Kountz took over did the Buffs make a serious run. Kountz had 8 points in the second half and hit some key shots to bring the score close. And with Bey having a relatively quiet half, Schwartz was CU’s best overall player. He had 9 in the half and generally looks like he’s figuring out who he is on the offensive side.
With those two leading the way, the Buffs cut the lead to 1. It looked almost inevitable that they would overtake Washington and pull off the upset, but just when the breakthrough was going to happen, the offense lost all rhythm and faded down the stretch. They ultimately lost by 7 in a game they never led.
It’s worth mentioning that part of why CU lost their rhythm was foul trouble. CU only has three bigs, so when Battey and Siewert started getting called for ticky-tack fouls, they had to sit in favor of Alexander Strating. (No disrespect to Strating, but he’s not good enough for crunch time minutes.) Once those two were held out, and later fouled out, CU didn’t have anyone to replicate what they bring to the offense as screeners and passers.
Next up for the Buffs is an away game against Utah on Sunday, January 20th (4:00 p.m., ESPNU). The Utes are probably the worst they have been in at least five years, but they’re still dangerous in SLC. It’s going to be a long week of preparation and injury rehabilitation for CU, but hopefully they come away a better team.