Defense and heart. That will be what defines the 2019-20 Colorado Buffaloes. The Buffs showed every bit of grit in their comeback win over the Clemson Tigers in the MGM Resorts Main Event.
The Buffaloes are a strong two-way team, but thus far into the season, their shots have hit more rim than net. There’s nothing wrong with the offense; their shooting is just off right now. Those struggles carried over against Clemson. The Tigers have an aggressive defense that forces mistakes and the Buffs didn’t adjust early on.
McKinley Wright was mostly absent from the game in the first half. He dominates more often than not, but there are halves where he disappears. In those moments, someone else has to pick up the slack, usually multiple people. Tyler Bey was fantastic again — he won MVP of the competition — but no one else stepped up in the first half. The team shot 40% from the field and 30% from three.
They trailed 36-33 at half, but it didn’t feel that close. Powered by Aamir Simms and his game-high 23 points, the Tigers built their lead to 12 points with fifteen minutes to play. It felt like it just wasn’t Colorado’s night. Clemson is a good team and these losses will happen.
But for those of us worried about the game, we should’ve remembered one of the principles of Tad Ball: if you keep it close, you have a chance.
As the Buffs faced a double-digit deficit, Evan Battey barreled around for a couple baskets. He missed the majority of the first half with foul trouble, which is why Colorado struggled with Clemson’s size. With Battey leading the way — along with Shane Gatling and Bey hitting tough shots — the Buffs were back in it.
The game went back-and-forth in the final ten minutes. The Buffs shone through with their free throw shooting. They made 24 of 25 free throws, which was a massive bump after shooting under 60% on freebies in their four previous games. Those points were everything, especially late when Clemson’s aggressiveness ended up hurting them.
At the very end, it was Colorado’s defense that won the game. With 10 seconds left, CU led by 2. Al-Amir Dawes had the ball, but McKinley Wright stripped him, then iced the game with two free throws. The Buffs gritted out the win because they allowed Clemson to score all of three points in the final 4+ minutes. It was a great defensive stand to come back and win the game.
This will go down as a resume-boosting win for Colorado. Even more importantly, it’s a blueprint for how this team can win tough games when their offense is missing. They have an elite defense, rebound everything, and have enough heart to keep fighting. That will travel. It will play in tournaments to come.