We knew this game would be tough. The Buffs had two days to prepare for a road game against an elite opponent. Even worse is that the Vols hadn’t yet played a game and were psyched to be on the court.
Colorado looked flat-footed, unconfident and overmatched in the early minutes. Tennessee has a whole bunch of bullies and they were ruthless in building a 17-2 lead in the first eight minutes of play. The Buffs couldn’t get into offensive sets, couldn’t hit any of their contested shots, and generally looked incapable of doing anything positive without McKinley Wright carrying them.
The good news is that things got much better for CU after that horrendous start. The Buffs settled into a 2-3 zone defense and flummoxed the Vols, as they allowed just 8 points in the final ten minutes of the half. The game turned into classic TadBall — a rock fight style of basketball the Buffs drag more talented teams into, in which they always have a chance to win by virtue of experience.
During Tennessee’s scoring drought, the Buffs made just enough shots to cut down the deficit. Led by Jeriah Horne’s 7 points, Colorado went on a 14-2 run to cut the lead to 28-24 before going into halftime down 31-24. It was not ideal, but it was a great place to be in considering how badly they struggled early.
Soon after halftime, Colorado cut the lead down to 33-31, but the Vols responded with their own run. They forced turnovers and misses, got out in transition and found the few easy buckets this game had to offer. Anosike crashed hard on the offensive boards to earn points in the paint and free throws, while Santiago Vescovi hit clutch outside shots.
Once the Buffs were down by double digits, it was a slow climb back into the game. Rick Barnes’ entire defensive gameplan was to shut down McKinley Wright. He had multiple NBA-caliber defenders shadowing him and the help defense lurking one step towards him. That gameplan forced the ball out of Wright’s hands, leading to lots of missed shots and turnovers from players who can’t carry the offense as he does.
After ten minutes of keeping Tennessee within striking distance, Colorado cut the lead to 52-47 with 57 seconds left in the game. But just as they looked ready for the road upset, the Vols drew fouls and forced turnovers, eventually running out the clock for a 56-47 result.
Colorado ended the game having shot 16 of 48 (33%) from the field and 5 of 22 (23%) from three. They committed 23 turnovers, including 12 live-ball steals that led to 16 points in transition. None of those numbers are good, but CU still had a chance to win on the road against the #12 team in the country because their defense is elite in its own right.
Even with the loss, it’s an okay result for Colorado. It doesn’t look bad at all on the resume and it proves how TadBall always gives the team a chance to win. This also gives them a number of things to work on, namely having a functional offense in case Wright is locked up. The Buffs should grow from this result.
Colorado won’t play again until next Monday, Dec. 14. It will be the home opener against Northern Colorado, so we’re hoping to see the reserves and walk-ons play the last ten minutes.