2012 will not be repeated. The Colorado Buffaloes’ dream of winning the Pac-12 Tournament and earning a berth in the NCAA Tournament is now dead. The Buffs had to slay the top-seeded Washington Huskies to reach the tournament final, but Colorado just couldn’t pull this one out against a more experienced team.
The Buffs’ upset chances looked stellar in the opening minutes. They opened with more intensity and motivation than the Huskies and ambushed them from the jump. If Colorado was going to win, they had to play physical defense without fouling and be patient with the ball to crack the UW defense. They were doing both early on and had complete control. The 8-0 lead early doesn’t look all that impressive in hindsight, but the way they were playing, especially in contrast to their opponent, had the feeling of an ambush that turns into a massive lead. But that didn’t quite turn out.
Washington responded as they do — by playing lockdown defense and chucking threes. Once Washington finally woke up after their 10 minute slumber, it was a struggle for Colorado to create any chances. It was this time, too, that Washington’s three-point chucking found net. The Huskies ended up with half of their shots from beyond the arc, which is great if the Buffs are forcing them to settle and contesting, but they weren’t. It was lucky UW only shot 4-15 in the first half.
After Washington took a 21-18 lead, Colorado needed to respond or the game would be lost then and there. They responded by pounding the ball inside and re-upping their defense. Tyler Bey, suddenly awake, powered Colorado to a 10-0 run to take a 28-21 lead with 4 minutes left in the half. Then after a brief struggle for the lead in the final minutes of the half, Lucas Siewert hit a clutch three to have the Buffs up 33-27 lead at the break.
Overall, the first half was terrific for Colorado. They landed the first punch, absorbed Washington’s counter, then continued to fight. But the first punch was likely a missed opportunity. Washington was not at all ready in the first ten minutes and it was a critical miss that CU led by only 6 points when they woke up. It’s obviously easier said that done, but Colorado’s best chance at winning this was to build an early lead and defend like hell in the second half, just they did against Oregon State. They had the chance and didn’t take full advantage.
The second half was all Huskies until CU’s furious comeback effort. Mike Hopkins is too smart to be outcoached and his team is too experienced to stay down. They knew Colorado was going to work them inside-out, so their zone clamped down on Bey and Evan Battey and forced CU’s perimeter players to beat them. McKinley Wright and Shane Gatling were off tonight — they combined for 1-17 shooting — and D’Shawn Schwartz started panicking against their pressure. A brutal offensive showing combined with more turnovers issues meant 5 points (!) in the first ten minutes of the second half.
While Colorado’s offense was down, the Huskies took their swing and connected. Bolstered by sweet shooting and drawn fouls, they scored 23 points to Colorado’s 5. It didn’t really matter what CU’s defense was doing, because on the one hand, the offensive play created the awful situation and tons of points off turnovers, and on the other, Washington earned their buckets by making tough shots and forcing CU into mistakes.
It was when Washington took a 58-47 lead with under four minutes left that the dream appeared to be over. Though the game was essentially lost, this CU team simply does not quit. No one was shooting well and the only way to score was by Bey getting to the line, but dammit if they weren’t going to try to win it. It almost worked! Washington started missing their free throws and Colorado eventually made it a single possession game. They just couldn’t get that final shot to fall.
It feels weird to say after losing a game where they had so many chances to win, but this tournament and this game say a lot about where CU is and how far they have come. Even when nothing is falling, they fight for the win because they know defense and rebounding is enough to keep it close. Even when they know a loss is nearly certain, they will fight until the end because they won’t accept a loss unless it’s official. This is not a team that will give up, and that’s something to celebrate.
Colorado won’t play in the NCAA Tournament, but they are just about guaranteed a spot in the NIT. It’s hard to say what seed they will get or if they will host any games, but wherever they land and whoever they play, they will be dangerous. Let’s hope this season continues for another week or three.