Buffs Narrowly Escape RedHawks
BOULDER - Rather than a runaway, it was a 40-minute grind.
Tuesday night's tense 67-65 win against Miami (Ohio) University might leave Colorado better prepared for its upcoming Big 12 Conference schedule than a blowout.
"Before all this started, we said it's like the Big Nasty - not the Big 12," CU coach Jeff Bzdelik said.
In truth, the nastiness began in the Buffaloes' final non-conference game against an opponent that Bzdelik had promised was better than its record (now 3-10) would indicate.
Do CU and Kentucky basketball have anything in common? Perhaps only this: The Buffs and the Wildcats both eased past the RedHawks by two points (Kentucky won, 72-70) on their respective home courts.
At the Coors Events Center, CU found itself in survival mode in the final 10 seconds as Miami closed to within one point and had a chance to win at the buzzer after Buffs senior Dwight Thorne II missed one of two free throws with 9.6 seconds to play.
Trailing by the final margin, RedHawks freshman guard Allen Roberts missed a three-pointer at the buzzer, allowing the Buffs to escape and begin contemplating No. 2 Texas, their opening Big 12 opponent Saturday in Austin.
CU will make the trip with a 9-5 record, the nine wins matching last season's total. The Buffs also stayed unbeaten (8-0) at the Events Center this season.
Freshman Alec Burks led CU with 17 points and 10 rebounds, while Thorne added 14 points, as did junior Marcus Relphorde, who was scoreless in the Buffs' weekend loss at Tulsa.
Bzdelik liked Relphorde's response, saying, "Well, we need everybody at their best every night. I was pleased with the effort . . . we need to just keep scrapping and stay positive and keep fighting on every possession. I thought we did that tonight."
Junior Cory Higgins, CU's leading scorer, didn't get his first points until the game's final 6:54. But of his team's next 14 points, Higgins scored 11, finishing with that total.
Higgins' late resolve also uplifted his coach. "I think we expect so much out of him," Bzdelik said of Higgins. "He came up with some key steals and key buckets in the second half. That's the sign of great leadership . . . I'm very impressed with the way he responded."
The same was said about his team, which bounced back after Saturday's 84-59 trouncing at Tulsa. Bzdelik said the close win over what he termed a "quality opponent" should give CU "a confidence boost" as it enters conference play.
Although out-pointed 34-20 in the paint, CU shot 51.2 percent from the field (21-of-41) and 50 percent (7-of-14) from behind the arc.
But the Buffs missed eight of their 26 free throw attempts, prompting Bzdelik to note his team's top national ranking in free throw percentage had been "the kiss of death. I don't think we'll be there (No. 1) anymore."
CU was outrebounded by only two (27-25) and committed the same number of turnovers (14) as Miami.
The Buffs led 32-25 at halftime, but their biggest lead before intermission was 10 points. A 12-2 run in the game's first 7 minutes opened that gap - but CU couldn't hold it, allowing Miami to even regain the lead by a point (18-17) before the Buffs were able to take some semblance of temporary control once more.
CU took its half-time lead despite the struggles of Higgins, who took only two first-half shots. He doesn't go scoreless through many halves; the last time it happened was during the EA Sports Maui Invitational, when he failed to score in the first half of CU's 73-58 win against Chaminade.
He finished that game with a season-low six points - the only time this season he's failed to reach double figures. He has never been held scoreless in his college career.
By the midway point of the second half, with CU holding only a one-point lead (41-40), Higgins had three fouls, no points and four turnovers.
"I don't have an explanation for it; it was just a slow start," Higgins said. "I feel as though I'm one of the leaders on this team and it was disappointing playing that way tonight."
Finally, with 6:54 to play, Higgins scored after a hard drive down the right lane - and it happened at an opportune time. When Higgins laid the ball off the glass, the Buffs went up 49-40.
He then stole the ball at midcourt and made another layup, capping a 10-0 run that pushed CU in front 51-40 for the home team's biggest advantage of the night.
Miami's momentum appeared to be disappearing - or was it?
The RedHawks rallied to within one (53-52) on a conventional three-point play by Roberts and a trey by Nick Winbush on the ensuing possession.
Thorne answered with a trey, sending CU in front 56-52, then Higgins hit first three-pointer of the game to give the Buffs a 59-52 cushion with 2:29 remaining.
As it turned out in the final 10 seconds, that seven-point lead hadn't been much of a cushion. The RedHawks wouldn't roll.
But, said Higgins, the harrowing win "definitely helps. I don't think we'll have any blowout games in the Big 12, so this was one of those tests we needed so we could learn how to win close games."