Brooks: Buffs’ Last-Half Magic Fades In Loss To Trojans

BOULDER – The Colorado women’s basketball team had won its two previous games by going into second-half survival mode, locking down Arizona and UCLA in the last 20 minutes. Twice was nice, but the magic finally fizzled Sunday afternoon against Southern California.
Gritty CU erased a 12-point halftime deficit, even took a one-point lead in the last 2 minutes, but couldn’t close out USC in a 66-59 Pac-12 Conference loss at the Coors Events Center. A 55-45 win in January’s league opener gave the Trojans a series sweep.
Needing a full 40-minute effort to send out seniors Rachel Hargis and the Wilson twins – Ashley and Brittany – on a celebratory note, the Buffaloes’ focus was sporadic in the first half and they couldn’t fully compensate for it in the second.
CU (16-13, 6-12) trailed by as many as 14 points in the first half and nine midway through the second before catching USC (18-12, 11-7) at 56-56 and going ahead 59-58 on an “and-one” by Brittany Wilson with 1:22 remaining.
But the Trojans scored the game’s last eight points – six of them by junior guard Ariya Crook, a former high school teammate of the Wilsons. Crook hit a layup and went four-of-four from the free throw line in the final 56 seconds, finishing with a game-high 18 points.
“You would think at this point in the season with every game meaning something, there would be a lot of focus throughout the game,” CU coach Linda Lappe said, noting her team was “all over the place” mentally in the first half. “For us, the free throw line is something you can look at and see really quickly if we’re focused. When we’re focused, we knock down free throws 70-80 percent of the time. When we’re not, we shoot about 30-45 percent from the line.”
That was one of Sunday’s trouble spots for CU. Although they hit eight more field goals than the Trojans (25-17), that advantage was blunted by the Buffs’ dismal 9-of-21 (42.9 percent) from the free throw line. CU also missed all nine of its 3-point attempts, but had decided edges in points in the paint (40-12), second-chance points (10-3) and bench points (24-17).
Yet falling behind by 14 early, catching up, then falling back late by nine took its toll in spent energy. “You can’t spot a good team 12 points,” said Lappe. “Ultimately we ran out of gas at the end as well as time . . . I thought we came out ready, but it lasted about five minutes, and then we kind of sputtered through the rest of the first half. We turned the ball over too much (20 times) and missed some easy shots.”
Brittany Wilson, who scored a team-best 15 points, said playing catch up for most of the afternoon was a grueling exercise for the Buffs: “I felt it. We were tired, but we were going to fight, and that’s one thing that we’ve done all year. It is hard coming back from a 12-point deficit, but we all knew we could do it, so I thought we did a great job believing that and we gave a great fight at the end.”
CU had held its past two opponents to a combined five field goals in the second half of each game, allowing 22 total points to Arizona and UCLA in winning both games. After watching the Trojans shoot 47.6 percent (10-of-21) in Sunday’s first half, the Buffs tightened up their ‘D’ again in the second half, limiting USC to 25.9 percent (7-of-27).
But the talented Trojans were better down the stretch than either the Wildcats or Bruins, even with senior forward Cassie Harberts (14 points) contending with four fouls.
In addition to Brittany Wilson’s 15 points, Ashley Wilson, freshman Zoe Beard-Fails and sophomore Jamee Swan added 10 each. Hargis scored six, including a foul-line jumper that brought the Buffs to within 56-54 with 3:39 to play.
“It’s funny because at the game on Friday, I passed up that same shot, and this time, I just caught it right in rhythm,” Hargis said. “I actually heard Ashley scream my name, but I was already into the shot, so I just took it and it bounced around. I was ready to grab it if it was coming out, but it rolled it in, so I was glad.”
The Buffs were without junior forward Jen Reese on Sunday and will be for this week’s Pac-12 Conference Tournament and any further postseason play. Reese, averaging 12 points and 5.8 rebounds a game, suffered a broken bone in her left shoulder near the conclusion of the first half in Friday night’s 62-42 win against UCLA. The Buffs, seeded No. 9, and the Bruins, seeded No. 8, play again in Thursday’s Pac-12 opening round in Seattle (1 p.m. MST, Pac-12 Network, KKZN AM 760)
CU stayed close for the first 41/2 minutes Sunday, but after a 10-10 tie USC put together an 18-4 run and took a 14-point lead (28-14) that the Buffs could reduce by only two (34-22) at intermission. If the Buffs were to extend their winning streak to three games, another defensive lock down would be needed in the second half. An upturn on offense might help, too.
CU got both, holding USC without a field goal in the first 6:00 and outscoring the Trojans 14-2 to tie the score at 36-36 on a put-back by Beard-Fails. Brittany Wilson contributed six of the 14 points in CU’s early second-half run.
USC quickly went back in front by nine (47-38) but CU cut into that deficit with two Brittany Wilson free throws, a layup by Swan on a nice feed from Arielle Roberson, then two Swan foul shots, pulling to 49-44 with 8:48 remaining. But a 3-pointer from the top of the key by Desiree Bradley gave USC a 52-44 lead.
The Trojans maintained an eight- or six-point edge until Ashley Wilson hit a layup and Hargis added her foul-line jumper after Wilson’s missed free throw, cutting USC’s lead to 56-54. Swan’s up-and-under layup tied the score at 56-56 with 2:38 left.
Harberts broke the tie (58-56) with two free throws, but Brittany Wilson converted a conventional three-point play with a layup and a foul shot, giving CU a 59-58 lead with 1:21 to play. Unfortunately for the Buffs, the three points by “B-Wil” would be their last of the regular season.
Although CU closed the regular season by winning two of its last three, Lappe said defeating USC would have generated even more momentum for the Pac-12 Tournament.  “I thought we had great momentum after the second half against Arizona, and we took that into UCLA, but then tonight we just didn’t have enough,” she said. “Are we getting better? Yes, we’re still getting better. Are we there yet? No. The good thing about this time of the year, and why they call it March Madness, is that anything can happen.”
Still, Hargis said the wins against Arizona and UCLA and Sunday’s refusal to roll over created “some more positive energy going into the tournament. Before, we were kind of down and didn’t know what we could do. We know now that we can be a great team. We just have to buckle down, focus and play the whole 40 minutes, not start off so badly and we just really have to work hard in practice this week to be ready to go Thursday.”
Contact: BG.Brooks@Colorado.EDU

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