Buffs Open Season With Comeback Win
BOULDER - Whitney Houston returned with a rush on Sunday. It almost made her year's absence worthwhile. Almost.
In her first game back after missing last season due to knee surgery, the junior point guard hit a layup and a three-pointer in crunch time to help push the Colorado women's basketball team past the University of California-Irvine 61-56 in CU's season opener.
The Buffaloes trailed 33-19 at halftime. Rallying from that 14-point deficit at intermission ties for the third-largest comeback in school history.
Houston's layup gave the Buffaloes their first lead (54-52) of the game. Then she followed with her trey from the top of the key to allow CU breathing room it hadn't enjoyed for most of the afternoon.
"I guess I can say we needed it," Houston said of her late heroics. "It's my responsibility as a point guard . . . to give us that spark."
That she could provide it when necessary is a testament to her perseverance. "When you (miss) a year, nobody can duplicate that time off," Buffs coach Kathy McConnell-Miller said of Houston. "She's still finding her role and trying to figure it out."
Houston and teammate Bianca Smith finished with 11 points each, seven fewer than team high-scorer Brittany Spears, who opened her junior season with a double-double (18 points, 14 rebounds).
UCI's Jade Smith-Williams led all scorers with 18, while teammate Rebecca Maessen added 11.
Attribute it to a case of opening afternoon jitters at the Coors Events Center, maybe the weekend snowstorm or perhaps something else outlandish, but it would have been difficult to imagine the Buffs starting more ineffectively.
After falling behind 2-0, they tied the score at 2-2 on Chucky Jeffery's first collegiate field goal (a layup after a steal), then quickly found themselves behind 18-7 with 10 minutes to play in the half.
McConnell-Miller said her team's first half "was not up to expectations," adding UCI "came in with the mentality to win." While she was "proud of the way my team fought back to win," she said she doesn't want the Buffs to continue to put themselves in that position.
"I don't like having to come back," she said.
How did the slow start happen? For starters, CU hit just four of its first 15 shots (26.7 percent) from the field and had trouble stopping UCI (0-2) in transition.
Rebounding was an early problem, too, with the Buffs finding themselves out-boarded 16-7 with 7:48 left in the half. They managed to right themselves on the boards (CU outrebounded UCI 50-32 for the game), but their shooting stayed frigid through the opening half.
By halftime, CU was only 8-of-28 from the field (28.6 percent) and UCI was up 33-19, with Smith-Williams' dozen points - which included three-of-three from behind the arc - leading all scorers and keying a pair of 10-0 runs for the Anteaters.
CU scored nine points to open the second half, pulling to within five (33-28) before UCI coach Molly Goodenbour called a timeout with 16:33 to play.
The five-point deficit was as close as the Buffs had been since trailing 22-17. But after an Anteaters turnover out of the timeout , Alyssa Fressle hit a short jumper in the lane and CU had trimmed the margin to 33-30.
A put-back by freshman Meagan Malcolm-Peck made it 33-32 and completed CU's 13-0 run to open the second half. With 14:15 to play, Smith-Williams' two free throws finally earned UCI its first second-half points.
"We kept telling ourselves we could come back," said Smith. "And we told ourselves we weren't going to lose on our home floor."
But just as suddenly, the Anteaters were off and running again, outscoring the Buffs 12-2 over the next 4 minutes to reclaim a double-digit advantage (45-34) with just under 10 minutes remaining.
UCI matched its biggest lead of the afternoon - 14 points - on a layup by Kim Barnes that made the score 50-36.
But Houston and the Buffs weren't done. Smith's three-pointer and a three-point play by Spears helped bring them to 52-48 with 4:03 left.
A pair of free throws by Spears half a minute later pulled CU to 52-50. She tied the score at 52-52 on a short jumper, then watched her roommate, Houston, give the Buffs their first lead with 1:38 to play.
After Houston's clutch three-pointer, Kelly Jo Mullaney and Smith added two free throws each in the final 17.6 seconds to seal the win.
CU plays in the Minnesota Tournament vs. Illinois-Chicago (Nov. 20) and Minnesota (Nov. 22).