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CU Toughens Up In Last Half, Dispatches Yale

Dec 29, 2009

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BOULDER - If Colorado expected Ivy League member Yale to be a pushover, the Buffaloes were wrong . . . but fortunately not dead wrong.

The big and physical Bulldogs forced the Buffs to push back, which they did in the second half to earn a 70-59 victory Tuesday night at the Coors Events Center.

Juniors Cory Higgins (23 points) and Marcus Relphorde (15) and freshman Alec Burks (19) led CU, which improved to 8-4 and remained unbeaten (7-0) on its home court.

Despite holding the Bulldogs (4-8) to seven points in the final 10 minutes of the first half, the Buffs led only 26-25 at intermission and were seldom in synch offensively throughout the night.

"Defensively, we were rock solid," CU coach Jeff Bzdelik said. "Offensively, we were stuck in mud."

But Bzdelik said his team didn't allow that dysfunctional offensive performance to undermine its defensive energy, particularly in the second half when the Buffs opened with a 17-8 run and took their first double-figure lead of the game.

"I'm proud of them for that," Bzdelik said, noting CU's defensive pressure "kept us within striking distance and allowed us to slowly get separation. That's something to build on and to be positive about."

The Buffs were outrebounded 41-27, but they still made the night miserable for the Bulldogs by forcing them into 30 turnovers and pilfering a season-high 18 steals - a half dozen by Burks, who also hit 11 of his 13 free throw attempts.

"We did a poor job of handling the pressure and getting the ball where it needed to go," Yale coach James Jones said. "Guys got trapped. For lack of a better term, panic kicked in and we turned the ball over."

During CU's early second-half surge, Relphorde, who fouled out with 5:16 remaining, scored 10 of his total in a variety of ways. He said the Buffs came out of the locker room at halftime "with some plays where I could attack" - and he took full advantage.

"I just tried to get the team off to a good start in the second half," he added.

Early on, the Bulldogs relied on their size and muscle to take a 10-point lead (18-8) before the Buffs determined that defensive pressure and positioning might be necessary to win this one. CU also switched to a 1-3-1 zone that Jones said "got them back in the basketball game . . . (it) enabled them to get some turnovers and some opportunities to score on our end."

CU obviously met one goal in shutting down Yale guard Alex Zampier, who entered the game as the Ivy League's leading scorer (18.9 points a game). He was held to seven points.

"Stopping him was a big focus," Bzdelik said.

CU partially compensated for its offensive incompetence by converting 10 of 15 first-half free throw attempts and finishing 27-for-38. The Bulldogs were 0-for-1 from the line in the first half and wound up 14-of-19.

The Buffs were outrebounded 23-11 in the first half (9-2 offensively) and allowed nine second-chance points. But in the second half, Yale got just four more offensive rebounds and the same number of second-chance points.

Damaging CU most on the boards was Yale's 6-foot-10, 230-pound senior center, Paul Nelson, who finished with a double-double (12 points, 13 rebounds).

In their first 11 games, the Bulldogs didn't depend on him for much offense; he entered Wednesday night's contest not even averaging a point (0.6) a game.

Yale used him and 6-10 teammate Greg Mangano effectively against a smaller CU lineup that won't get much relief - size-wise, at least - when Big 12 Conference play begins on Jan. 9 at No. 2 Texas.

"We need to block out; we work on it every day," Bzdelik said. "You have to strike first and drive people back . . . . Our perimeter players have to go in there and dig out rebounds. We just have to do it."

Bzdelik said his players shouldn't have been taken aback by the Bulldogs' brawn: "I told them that (Yale) is a big, junior-senior team. They've played at Boston College, Providence, Connecticut . . . they've been through it."

In the final 14 minutes, the Buffs led by as many as a dozen points and never allowed the Bulldogs closer than six.

Zampier's layup with 3:13 to play brought Yale to within 60-54, eliciting a timeout from Bzdelik.

When Nate Tomlinson hit a pair of free throws a minute later and Higgins added a short floater just inside the key with 1:30 remaining, the Buffs had restored their 10-point lead (64-54) and were safe the rest of the way.

The trip to Boulder marked Yale's first Colorado visit since 1999, and the Bulldogs will stay around long enough to ring in 2010 in the Rocky Mountain west. They play at Colorado State on New Year's Eve.

CU travels to Tulsa on Saturday.

Contact: BG.Brooks@Colorado.EDU