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Colorado hold off California, move to first place in Pac-12

The Buffs played poorly, but pulled it out.

NCAA Basketball: California at Colorado Ron Chenoy-USA TODAY Sports

The Colorado Buffaloes (18-5, 7-3) escaped with a win they didn’t really deserve, to be quite honest. The California Golden Bears (10-12, 4-5) came out ready to fire away and played strong team defense, however, the Buffs outshined them down the stretch and pulled off the 71-65 win.

Cal had a gameplan that they executed in the first half: they would slow the game down, muck up Colorado’s offensive rhythm, and hit whatever shots they could muster on the other end. Those shots were mostly Matt Bradley and Kareem South hitting contested looks, the kinds of shots that you can’t do much against if they’re going in. The Bears should have scored more than 28 in the half, but their turnover issues belied their 62% shooting from the field.

While Cal had the hot hand, the Buffs struggled with a strange malaise. The crowd wasn’t there tonight, players weren’t moving much off the ball, and too often was CU relying on isolation scoring. Cal has a good defense, especially when they want to slow the game down and get gritty, which is how they beat Stanford and nearly upset Oregon.

It was fortunate the Buffs were tied at 28-28 at halftime. There was next to nothing that was positive about their offensive play in that half. The best thing was grabbing 7 offensive rebounds, but even then, that’s because they shot missed so many shots.

Colorado did finish the first half strong and they found a rhythm (briefly) early in the second half. They had a nice flow once D’Shawn Schwartz started hitting threes to compliment Tyler Bey scoring inside. That lasted as long as Cal was missing shots, since CU is very good at turning rebounds into transition opportunities.

After that mini-run, the Buffs still struggled finding clean shots against a set defense. They turned it over on shot clock violations, chucked threes because there was nothing available, and it seemed like their points came at the free throw line. They ended up going four minutes without a basket until McKinley Wright hit a triple. (Wright was fantastic in the second half, it should be noted.)

Cal didn’t shoot nearly as well in the second half, but they only needed to hit a few to stay in the game, considering CU’s offensive struggles. For that, they relied on Paris Austin, the jitterbug point guard, and Matt Bradley, the hero-ball shot-maker. The Buffs struggle to contain those speedy guards and Austin was just too quick for the help defense to rotate over in time. Bradley, meanwhile, hit enough contested jumpers to keep Cal around whenever it looked like CU had control.

Colorado didn’t pull away until the final minute, and even then missed free throws made this a sketchy finish. Bey and Wright ended up with a combined 27 points in the second half, 40 total for the game, and they carried the team down the stretch. It helps to have those stars who can go get buckets when no one is making shots and there’s no flow.

Next up for the Buffs is a Saturday home game against the Stanford Cardinal (16-5, 5-3). The Cardinal have been a pleasant surprise this year with their selfless pick-and-roll offense. They’re much better than Cal, although the Buffs match up quite well and should be more focused on Saturday.