Buffs Top Trojans To Advance To Pac-12 Title Game
LAS VEGAS — Colorado's D'Shawn Schwartz dunked a McKinley Wright IV miss with 3.3 seconds remaining Friday to lift the Buffaloes to a dramatic 72-70 win over USC in the Pac-12 tournament semifinals at T-Mobile Arena.
Tad Boyle's Buffs will meet Oregon State, a surprise 75-64 winner over top-seeded Oregon in the other semifinal, in Saturday's 8:30 p.m. (MT) championship game (ESPN). Colorado swept Oregon State in the regular season, taking an easy 78-49 win in Boulder before scratching out a 61-57 victory in Corvallis.
Friday's win, CU's sixth in a row, improved the third-seeded Buffs to 22-7 while second-seeded USC fell to 22-7.
Wright came back from a first-half injury — a wicked elbow to the head — to finish with 24 points and Jeriah Horne added 19 for Colorado, 14 in the second half.
Evan Mobley led USC with 26 points.
The Buffs used a 17-0 first half run to build a 15-point lead midway through the period before USC cut the margin to nine by halftime, 39-30. The Trojans then slowly narrowed the margin throughout the second half and finally tied the game at 70-70 on a Tajh Eaddy three-point play with 35 seconds on the clock.
That led to CU's final possession, with Wright getting a good look at the bucket but coming up just short. Schwartz then crashed the boards and rammed home the one-handed jam to give the Buffs the win.
The Buffs shot just 42 percent for the game (26-for-61), but hit 12 of their 24 3-point tries, with Wright and Horne each collecting four.
The Trojans shot 52 percent for the game, including 60 percent in the second half to fuel their comeback. But the Buffs had a 37-29 edge on the boards and a 31-12 edge in points off the bench.
"Tonight was a high-level basketball game by two really good teams, a lot of good players on that floor," Boyle said. "It was two really good teams with good players. Evan Mobley would make a play, Mckinley Wright would make a play, Evan Mobley would make a play, McKinley would make a play, then one of their guys would make a play … This was an NCAA Tournament-level game, a second round or even a Sweet 16-type game. That's what tonight was."
HOW IT HAPPENED: Colorado used a 17-0 run early in the first half to take control, pushing the lead to as much as 15 points at the midway point of the half. Schwartz hit a pair of 3-pointers to start the surge and Evan Battey and Wright scored inside to make it a 10-0 run.
But soon after his bucket, Wright took a vicious elbow to the head from USC's Chevez Goodwin under the USC basket. Wright crashed to the floor and after several minutes had to be helped to the locker room while Goodwin was assessed a technical foul.
"It hurt," Wright said. "He's a big strong dude. Luckily I have a big head or else I would have been out for probably longer … But it's a part of basketball. I ain't mad at him. He got an offensive rebound and was swinging through trying to create space to get a shot up but he caught me. It hurt, but I'll be alright."
With Wright in the locker room, CU backup guard Keeshawn Barthelemy stepped up, knocking down a pair of 3-pointers to continue the 17-0 run. A Horne basket at the 9:35 mark gave CU a 22-7 lead and the Buffs appeared to be in total control.
Wright, who left the game at the 13:50 mark, returned roughly seven minutes later and hit two more 3-pointers over the final minutes of the half.
"I knew this much, I knew if McKinley Wright could come back, he would come back," Boyle said. "So when I saw him walk through the tunnel it was kind of a Willis Reed moment for those of you that remember the '69 (NBA) championship. Our fans saw it and they started cheering him and I think it gave our team a lift."
But USC, behind 17 points from Mobley, slowly chipped away at CU's lead and a Trojan 3-pointer just before the buzzer shaved Colorado's cushion to 39-30 at intermission.
"It was kind of a heavyweight fight with them making shots, us making shots, and we went some stretches where we could not stop them and had no answer for them," Boyle said. "We're a pretty good defensive team, but USC played extremely well offensively."
The Trojans were indeed efficient, especially in the second half. With Mobley leading the way, USC steadily carved away at Colorado's lead, pulling to within 58-56 with 6:49 still to play.
But just when momentum seemed to find a home on USC's bench, Colorado responded with a 10-0 run, sparked by back-to-back 3-pointers from Horne. The senior grad transfer started the game hitting just one of his first six shots, but hit five of his final nine.
"He's a big shot-taker, big shot-maker," Boyle said. "He's got supreme confidence. He's a rhythm shooter. He missed some ones that he normally would make … but he got it going. Great shooters, they don't have a memory and he let's it go. His teammates believe in him, he believes in himself."
Colorado led 68-56 with under four minutes to play but the Trojans had another run in their pocket, putting together an 8-0 surge. Wright temporarily stopped the run with a drive to the hoop for a 70-64 lead, but USC answered with six straight points from Eaddy to tie the game at 70-70, setting up CU's final possession.
The Buffs called a play designed to get Wright an open shot at the rim, but USC's defense resulted in him getting a good look from 15 feet out. The shot drew iron, but Schwartz perfectly timed the carom, grabbed the rebound and slammed it home.
"D'Shawn Schwartz did his job," Boyle said. "Again, big-time players make big-time plays."
USC had one last attempt to tie or win the ame, but Wright broke up a long pass downcourt in the final seconds to seal the win.
The Buffs got contributions from across the board. Along with his 19 points, Horne also had a team-high seven rebounds while Wright had five rebounds and four assists. Schwartz finished with nine points, Barthelemy added eight and Battey chipped in six points and six boards.
TURNING POINT: This one wasn't decided until the final seconds. But CU's 10-0 run with five minutes to play staved off what could have been a decisive momentum swing to USC's favor.
WHAT IT MEANS: The Buffs are in their second Pac-12 title game, with the only other coming in their first year in the conference, when they won four straight games in 2012 to win the championship … This marks the seventh time in school history CU has won at least 22 games; six of those seasons have come under Boyle's direction … While the Buffs are a lock for an at-large NCAA tourney berth, a win in the championship game would give them the conference's automatic bid.
KEY STATISTICS: The Buffs shot just 43 percent from the field, but hit 12 of their 24 3-point tries … CU also held a 37-29 rebound edge while limiting USC to just eight offensive rebounds.
QUOTEWORTHY: "Oregon State's playing great basketball right now. They have got multiple guys that are playing well, and we've got our hands full. They're playing for their NCAA tournament lives and a championship. We're playing for a championship. So we better be ready
to strap it up." — CU coach Tad Boyle
NEXT UP: The Buffs face Oregon State, a surprise winner over Oregon in Friday's other semifinal, in Saturday night's 8:30 p.m. (MT) championship game (ESPN).