Buffs Win, Punch Ticket For Big Apple, NIT Semis
BOULDER - Colorado finally put away Kent State Tuesday night in the final minute - make that a New York Minute - and booked its trip to the NIT semifinals. With the Coors Events Center's PA system blaring Frank Sinatra's New York, New York, the Buffaloes celebrated Tuesday night's 81-74 quarterfinal win over Kent State that sends them to Madison Square Garden for the first time since the 1990-91 season.
CU will play the winner of Wednesday's Alabama-Miami (Fla.) game on Tuesday, March 29 in the NIT semifinals. The NIT championship game is Thursday, March 31.
The top-seeded Buffs' win Tuesday night completed a three-game home romp through the NIT and might have soothed some of the NCAA-driven heartache of the last 10 days. First-year CU Coach Tad Boyle and his players insisted that page has been turned - partially in his case.
Being excluded from the NCAA Tournament, said Boyle, is "going to be with us the rest of our lives, especially our seniors . . . I don't know if it takes the sting away, it refocused us. But it hasn't taken the sting away from me."
Added senior Cory Higgins, who along with sophomore Alec Burks played through flu symptoms Tuesday night: "We can get more satisfaction out of what we're doing now . . . if we can win this tournament, we'll have no regrets whatsoever."
The Buffs, winning for the 18th time at home (two losses) and improving to 24-13 in a record-setting season, were energized by the largest of their three home NIT crowds. Their first-round game against Texas Southern attracted 6,299, their second-round game against California drew 7,614. Tuesday night, 9,065 turned out to watch CU and Kent State, the MAC regular-season champion, go knuckle-to-knuckle in a game that saw 19 lead changes and 12 ties.
"You've got to really honor Kent State," Boyle said. "We beat a good team . . . you can tell a lot from a team when you watch film, and we knew going into this thing it was going to be a battle."
"Two good teams," said Kent State Coach Geno Ford, whose team saw its season end at 25-12 and as a No. 7 seed was the lowest seed still playing. "I thought it was criminal (CU) didn't get into the tournament. I have a lot of respect for their program; they have good players and are well-coached.
"They made plays at the end; we couldn't get them stopped when we needed to and that's been our trademark all year - getting stops down the stretch. We just weren't able to do it and that's because they had better offense than we had defense."
Much of the Buffs' offense came from Burks, who needed an IV at halftime. With Higgins missing his first six shots and ending the first half with just four points, CU needed a first-half punch from somewhere. Although ailing, too, Burks provided it, scoring 15 of his game-best 25 points.
Higgins recovered enough to finish with 13 points and a team-high five assists, and he hit both ends of a clutch one-and-one with 1:13 remaining to send the Buffs up 79-74.
"Cory's been fighting the bug all week long," Boyle said. "I could tell he didn't have his legs . . . he fought through it."
The Buffs' flu-ridden pair was backed up by 17 points from senior Marcus Relphorde, who turned in a solid overall game, and a fifth double-double of the season from freshman Andre Roberson (13 points, 12 rebounds.) CU outrebounded Kent State 38-28, committed just eight turnovers and scored 12 points off of nine of the visitors' miscues. The Buffs shot 49.2 percent from the field (32-of-65), the Golden Flashes 50.0 (30-of-60). CU also had 20 assists - the high in the three NIT games thus far.
CU was without starting junior point guard Nate Tomlinson, who suffered a left shoulder separation in the second-round win over California. Tomlinson, who was dressed in street clothes, said he hoped to be ready to play in New York. Senior Levi Knutson started in place of Tomlinson, but Higgins - as he's done on other occasions this season - opened at point guard and got relief from Shannon Sharpe.
The Buffs took their biggest lead of the first half (36-31) on a layup by Roberson - the assist went to Burks - with 4 seconds before intermission. It was Burks' only assist of the first half, but that wasn't indicative of what he did for CU.
With Higgins not getting his first basket until 3:20 left before intermission - he was 0-for-6 to that point - the Buffs needed all that Burks could give them. And he was the CU gift that kept on giving. He finished the half with 15 points, four rebounds and three steals - more than making up for Higgins' uncharacteristic cold snap. (He had averaged 23.1 points in the first two rounds, Burks 26.)
On the court's other end, the Buffs had as much they could handle in 6-foot-8, 230-pound Justin Greene, the MAC player-of-the-year. Greene, who finished with a team-best 20 points, led the Golden Flashes with 12 first-half points, all in the paint. At various times, CU used Relphorde, Roberson, Austin Dufault, Trent Beckley to try and defend him.
Kent State held the lead until Roberson canned a three-pointer at the 13:23 mark to put CU up 9-8. From that point until a 24-24 tie, the lead went back and forth until the Golden Flashes - whose 2-3 zone gave the Buffs problems - took their biggest lead of the half, 24-19.
If the Buffs needed a wakeup call, that might have been it. They closed the half with a 17-7 run and took their 36-31 lead to the locker room, but the advantage didn't last long.
Kent State tied the score at 41-41 on a conventional three-point play by Carlton Guyton with 17:08 to play - and for the next 2 minutes there were three more ties. The Golden Flashes regained the lead (55-54) for the first time since 29-28, converting a Buffs turnover into a Randall Holt layup.
Then it was back to back-and-forth . . . Of the game's first 121 possessions, only eight times did one team have the ball when trailing by four or more points.
After Holt and Relphorde exchanged three-pointers, with Relphorde's trey giving CU a 59-58 advantage with 10:45 to play, Higgins hit a pair of free throws and the Buffs led 61-58. Kent State freshman Eric Gaines - in when senior Rod Sherman picked up his fourth foul - hit one of two free throws to cut CU's lead to two, and Michael Porrini stole the ball from Burks and drove for a layup to tie the score at 61-61 with 8:38 left.
When Holt's three-pointer settled into the net just under a minute later, the Golden Flashes were up 64-61 and the boisterous Events Center crowd quieted. The noise returned (and increased) when Higgins hit a layup off a fast break, was fouled and converted the three-point play to tie the game at 64-64 with 6:38 left.
A minute later, Roberson rebounded a missed Knutson trey attempt and put it back in for a 66-64 CU lead. But the Golden Flashes hadn't crisscrossed the country for the past week - they won games in California and Connecticut - to roll over in the quarterfinals.
Porrini's three-point play pushed Kent State in front 67-66, but Relphorde matched that (69-67) and Burks sent the decibel level soaring with an uncanny reverse layup to give CU a 71-67 lead with 4:29 showing.
The crowd, said Knutson, was "great . . . they've been great all year. We didn't know what to expect after the events of last week, so it's been great . . . the student section was packed - and we're on spring break, so we can't say enough about how great the fans have been, especially the last couple of games."
The Buffs and their fans were getting a whiff of the Big Apple, and it got stronger when Burks hit a short post-up jumper in the lane out of a timeout to push CU in front 75-69 - the Buffs' biggest lead of the night to that point.
No way the Golden Flashes were done. They closed to 77-74 on five consecutive points by the bullish Greene, before Higgins converted his one-and-one with 1:13 to play, giving CU its 79-74 lead.
Roberson went to the line with 36.3 seconds left, but missed his one-and-one front end. No matter; Relphorde rebounded and was fouled. He hit a pair and CU - up seven points - was on its way to NYC.
Winning for a final time in the Events Center, said Higgins, "was huge. I know how much it meant to all our seniors to go out as winners on our home court. That's something they can never take away from us, and I think we really left our mark on this program."
Another can be left next week in New York. Higgins has been in Madison Square Garden before - as a ballboy for his father (Rod) in the NBA. He was too young to form any memories of the Garden then, but those will come.
Lasting memories were made this season, said Higgins, who needs eight more points to surpass Donnie Boyce as CU's No. 2 career scorer and 14 to become No. 1: "It means the world to go out like this, especially with the other seniors who have been through it with me, because there have been some real lows in this program.
"To end our careers like this (with an NIT title) would be a dream."