The Colorado Buffaloes played their final home game of the season tonight, but their season will continue after a throughout beat down of Norfolk State in the second round of the NIT. After this 76-60 win, the Buffs will head to Austin to take on the Texas Longhorns (Wednesday, 7:00 p.m. MT, ESPN) with a chance to cut down the nets and advance to the NIT Final Four.
In front of a packed CU Events Center (minus the students on spring break), Colorado got off to a strong start, but Norfolk State was here to prove their upset over 1-seed Alabama was no fluke. The Spartans never took the lead, but in the first ten minutes, they stuck right with CU as they created good looks and converted at a solid clip. It helped too that CU struggled some with the press defense and committed numerous mistakes.
Perhaps it was the elevation, or perhaps Colorado realized they are the far better team, but they settled in around the ten-minute mark and took complete control over the game. Tyler Bey was clearly the best player on the floor and there was nothing Norfolk State could do to keep him from scoring 13 first half points. Once CU’s other players started hitting shots — including 20 combined points from Evan Battey, D’Shawn Schwartz and McKinley Wright — they went on a 22-6 run to close out the half.
Colorado’s final shot in the half — which gave CU was 43-23 lead — was an and-1 buzzer-beating layup from Battey. As the refs reviewed the shot, Battey stood alone at the free throw line and received a standing ovation. Knowing the kind of person Battey is and how much he has gone through to be where he is today, that was a special moment for this beloved gentle giant. Battey finished the night with 12 points and 10 rebounds, the first double-double in what will be an illustrious career.
The beautiful basketball of the first half did not last, however. Per Colorado tradition, they immediately allowed a 14-5 Norfolk State run that cut the lead down to 48-39. They shot just 30% from the field and 1-12 from three in the first half, and since CU wasn’t really making them miss those shots, it wasn’t much of a surprise to see the Spartans hit some shots and go on this scoring run. But the 20-point halftime lead was quite the cushion and this was never really in doubt.
After a brief period of sloppy and chaotic basketball, the Buffs’ offense hit their stride at the ten minute, just as they did in the first half. Once Norfolk State got tired legs, the Buffs started running by them, powering through for layups, and passing the ball around for open looks. More often than not, Colorado hit those shots. Daylen Kountz was particularly impressive as he hit back-to-back threes to push the lead to 62-42 with 8 minutes to go, then in the final minutes threw down a nasty dunk in transition. They spent the final minutes running out the clock and getting NIT exposure for the walk-ons.
After this 16-point win, the Buffaloes will take on Texas in Austin. The Longhorns have terrific players in Kerwin Roach and Jericho Sims, as well as former VCU head coach Shaka Smart, but the Buffs match up well. Roach is a deft playmaker and skilled shooter, but McKinley Wright has shut down better players. Sims is a force in the paint and on the glass, but Colorado has effectively dealt with Moses Brown and other titans, so even if those players haven’t been as good as Sims, CU knows how to adapt against size. Otherwise, Texas doesn’t have any versatile wings who can carve up CU on the perimeter like Dayton and Washington have done recently.
As far as playing in Austin goes, those fans don’t really care about the NIT, so they won’t have much of a home court advantage besides CU having only one day to rest and travel. It’s a game Colorado can absolutely win, and if they do, they will move on to New York and play in the Madison Square Garden for the NIT Final Four. This encouraging season continues and it could get better and better.