Depleted by injuries and illness, the Colorado Buffaloes needed all of KJ Simpson’s career high 34 points to overcome the Washington State Cougars.
The Buffs played this Sunday slate without Tristan da Silva (ankle), Cody Williams (wrist), RJ Smith (leg — out for season), Assane Diop (no idea) or Bangot Dak (illness — played a few minutes). Tad Boyle was down to seven scholarship players, two of whom — Javon Ruffin and Joe Hurlburt — have played a combined 18 minutes this season.
Simpson understood the assignment was aggressive early in the game. He scored 9 of CU’s first 15 points in the opening minutes of this game. It helped that he didn’t have to worry about getting everyone involved because most of his points came off cuts with either J’Vonne Hadley or Eddie Lampkin finding him with bounce passes.
The Buffs starters looked far better than Kyle Smith’s Cougars. They created the shots they wanted, held down Wazzu’s iso-heavy offense, and won the turnover and rebounding battles. Most of that held true when the bench started rotating in, although it was clear early on that Buffs were unable to space the floor, couldn’t keep up physically with Wazzu’s forwards and they were some defensive breakdowns that allowed Andrej Jakimovski to get hot.
The Buffs led 39-29 at the half thanks to Harrison Carrington’s and-1 layup, but the Cougs quickly started chipping away. The main adjustment Smith made was to attack the paint and crash the boards. He figured out that Isaac Jones was too athletic and skilled for anyone in gray to contain. Oscar Cluff, meaning, was simply too strong for anyone not name Eddie, and even then the Australian outmuscled Big Ed a few times.
Colorado had nothing going for them on the offensive side of the floor. They couldn’t get open threes, they couldn’t attack off the dribble, and those backdoor screens weren’t there anymore. The only reliable option was for KJ to put his head down and attack the rim. He hit enough layups and drew enough fouls to keep the offense scoring on a night where they just didn’t have the depth or the juice they normally do.
Just as the Buffs looked steady, Lampkin picked up his fourth foul and missed even more time in the second half. (Three of those fouls were dumb.) Boyle had to put in Hurlburt as his only available big man and that went about as well as anyone expected. I don’t know the on-off numbers, but they were ugly. It was blood in the water for Cluff and the Cougs, as they trimmed the Buffs’ lead down to 64-62 with four minutes to go.
The Buffs survived, thank goodness, after KJ took over the final few minutes. He hit some tough shots, CU got some defensive stops and then Hadley hit a dagger to go up 72-64 with a minute left. The final score ended up 74-67, but it could have been a frustrating home loss to a team that shouldn’t be competitive at the CU Events Center.
Colorado needs to get healthy fast, because they’re traveling to Arizona this coming week. The Buffs will take on the #4 Arizona Wildcats on Thursday — the ‘Cats are getting crushed by Stanford, as of this writing — and then the Arizona State Sun Devils on Saturday.