Slow-starting Buffs Overcome Themselves, Mustangs
BOULDER - If the Colorado Buffaloes were looking ahead to their Big 12 Conference opener, they opened Wednesday night as if they might allow the, gasp, Rocky Mountain Athletic Conference to spoil the view.
Maybe the best that can be said of the Buffs in their 92-70 win against Western New Mexico was that they all walked away afterwards and should be ready - physically and mentally - for No. 8 Missouri's visit on Saturday (11:30 a.m.) to the Coors Events Center.
Beyond that, first-year CU Coach Tad Boyle found, ah, a few flaws in his team's final non-conference contest. And those flaws, he said, were of his creation: "I didn't do a very good job of preparing the team; it was on me to get the team ready emotionally . . . needless to say, Pregame Speech No. 15 is going into the trash."
Oh, the Buffs ultimately exceeded their 84.3 scoring average, with five players reaching double figures. Alec Burks topped CU with 20 points, followed by Cory Higgins with 15, Levi Knutson and Marcus Relphorde with 13 each and Andre Roberson with 12. Roberson also added 12 rebounds.
There were other better-than-average CU numbers, too, such as a season-high 52 rebounds, only 11 turnovers, a 33-17 advantage in bench scoring and a 54-26 advantage in the paint.
But Boyle didn't have his eye on many stat lines when this one was done. He wanted to quickly turn the page and turn his attention to Mizzou. "We've got two days (to practice)," he said. "We'll be ready."
In addition to anticipating the Tigers' arrival, the Buffs might have had other visions of success dancing in their heads when they took the court Wednesday night. They entered their last non-conference outing on a three-game winning streak, with two of the wins on the road - a rarity for this program.
Also, they had won 20 consecutive home games against non-conference opposition, including eight this season. CU's mindset might have been: So what business did an RMAC team have coming to town and challenging that streak?
Bad thought - if that indeed was CU's thinking.
While blossoming freshman Roberson contended "everybody was looking to the Missouri game," Burks claimed Western New Mexico wasn't overlooked: "We came out flat and they took advantage . . . we weren't ready. We don't overlook anybody."
The Buffs led 44-36 at the half, but they opened poorly enough for Boyle to pull his starting five only 2:01 into the game after the Mustangs had taken an 8-2 lead.
In those opening 2 minutes, CU could plead guilty to almost everything a coach advises against - and Western New Mexico, which came to Boulder riding a two-game winning streak (Colorado Christian, School of Mines), gleefully took advantage.
When 6-foot-8 senior Chuck Kempf - the tallest player on the Mustangs roster - hit a three-pointer from the right wing, the Buffs fell behind 16-4. The Western New Mexico bench might not celebrate as it did until the Mustangs win the RMAC title in March.
Meanwhile, if a slow simmer wasn't underway on the CU bench it should have been. Boyle assumed poses he would strike for much of the night - shaking his head or burying it in both hands.
"You've got to wake them up somehow," Boyle said of yanking his starters. "I wanted to see if the guys on the bench were ready . . . but it wasn't like they came in and we came roaring back."
Mustangs Coach Mark Coleman viewed Boyle's mass substitution as a nice plus in the loss. "We don't come into these games expecting a win, obviously. (But) to make (Boyle) yell at his guys and take timeouts and pull his five starters kind of makes us feel good because we want to be competitive - and we did a good job of that," he said.
With 14:08 left in the half and his team trailing 16-6, Boyle began reinserting his starters. Relphorde returned at that point, with Higgins, Burks and Austin Dufault coming back just under 2 minutes later.
Less than a minute after that, Shannon Sharpe - opening at point guard in place of Nate Tomlinson, who was in street clothes resting a sore hip and will play Saturday - returned. Over the next 7:02, CU outscored the visitors 19-6 and took its first lead - 23-22 - on a Knutson layup.
The Buffs increased their advantage to double digits for the first time - 38-27 - with 3:43 remaining before intermission, but had to settle for their eight-point advantage at the break.
CU opened the second half with a 13-6 run and took a 17-point lead (57-40), although Western New Mexico continued to scrape and scrap the rest of the way. The Mustangs pulled to 60-51 on a layup by Chad Carter with 11:57 to play, but the Buffs restored their double-figure lead on two free throws by Relphorde and held it until the final buzzer. They led by as many as 25 in the last minute, when they could finally turn their full focus to Mizzou - if it wasn't there already.
Since defeating Nebraska 79-73 in Boulder in the Big 12's inaugural season (1997), the Buffs haven't fared well in conference openers. After the win against the Cornhuskers, they've dropped their next 13.
"Home court is going to be very important for us," said Boyle, "and it starts on Saturday . . . the price of poker is going up. We know that."