Balanced Buffs Bounce Back, Thump No. 2 Arizona
BOULDER — Colorado followed its worst performance of the season with its best Saturday, as the Buffaloes carved out a 79-63 win over No. 2 Arizona before a sellout crowd of 11,079 at the CU Events Center.
The win, which matched the highest-ranked opponent Colorado has beaten in its history, improved the Buffs to 19-10 overall and 11-8 in Pac-12 play. The Wildcats fell to 25-3 and 15-2.
The victory also came against the highest-ranked opponent in the Tad Boyle era and the fourth against an AP top five team.
CU's only other win against a No. 2 team came in 1992, when Colorado knocked off No. 2 Oklahoma State.
The Buffs put five players in double figures, with Jabari Walker scoring 15 points and grabbing 14 rebounds for his 15th double-double of the season. Tristan da Silva led CU in scoring with 19 points, Keeshawn Barthelemy added 15, K.J. Simpson chipped in 13 and Evan Battey celebrated his senior night with 11.
Azuolas Tubelis led Arizona with 13 while the Buffs held Wildcats leading scorer Benedict Mathurin to just 12 points on 3-for-11 shooting.
The victory came on the heels of Thursday's lethargic 82-65 loss to Arizona State, but the Buffs were a completely different team Saturday. CU overcame a five-point halftime deficit to dominate the Wildcats on both ends of the floor, holding the Wildcats to 39 percent shooting for the game and collecting a 35-33 rebounding edge.
CU shot 48 percent (31-for-64), hit 13 of 15 free throws and had a 54-26 edge on points in the paint, but the big difference came on the defensive end and in the intangibles that are Boyle's foundational cornerstones.
"That was a players victory," Boyle said. "I'm so proud of the way they bounced back. I challenged them and they responded. Toughness and effort. … Our energy level tonight on offense and on defense was off the charts good. We beat a good Arizona team. I've got great respect for Tommy Lloyd and, and the players that they have. They're a legit top-five team in the country. So kudos to our guys on a senior night. It's hard to write a script that's better than this. It's a step in the right direction for us."
HOW IT HAPPENED: Colorado trailed by five at intermission, 37-32, but used a 13-5 surge over the first 3:20 of the second half to take a 45-42 lead and the Buffs never trailed again.
Colorado received key contributions from every scholarship player in uniform.
Freshman Julian Hammond III, in his first start for the Buffs, had two baskets in the game-changing surge while Battey also delivered a pair, including a long 3-pointer. A da Silva basket at the 17:16 mark gave CU a 43-42 lead and the Buffs were in control the rest of the night.
"I dreamed of this game," said Battey, who delivered an emotional post-game address to the sellout crowd. "I wanted to get this one for the other seniors from the past, the alumni, the fans … I just wanted to get this one so bad."
The Buffs didn't stop after their opening second-half surge. Colorado's defense continued to apply pressure and the offense continued to deliver. The Buffs put together a 9-2 run, getting six points from Simpson, to extend their cushion to 54-46 with 13:33 to play.
Colorado held Arizona to 3-for-8 shooting over the first five minutes of the half while the Buffs were 7-for-9.
"This was a player-led win," Boyle said. "With about eight to 10 minutes left, during a timeout, Jabari (Walker) told everybody in the huddle, 'We're going to get this done with defense.'"
That is exactly what the Buffs did, as CU proceeded to build its lead to 13 with a 9-0 run for a 63-50 lead with seven minutes to play. The biggest play of the run came when Nique Clifford refused to give up in a scramble for a loose ball and gathered it in before flipping it to Simpson, who swished a long trey.
The Wildcats had one more run in their pocket, scoring seven in a row to cut CU's advantage to six. But the Buffs pushed their cushion back to nine, 68-59, with two da Silva free throws at the 4:44 mark, then put the game away over the next two minutes.
Battey hit two free throws with 3:10 to play after Barthelemy drew a charge on the defensive end. Walker followed with a drive inside and a da Silva 3-pointer — following two straight steals from the Buffs — gave CU a 75-59 lead with 2:01 remaining.
Colorado then ran out the clock for the win.
"They were way more physical than us and got the game on their terms when they got the lead in the second half," said UA coach Tommy Lloyd. "We got beat by a better team that probably wanted it a little bit more than we did today and played a little bit harder."
As the final seconds ticked down, Battey walked to the student section to invite fans to join the celebration and students stormed the court.
"Coach challenged us," said Battey, who has played in a program-record 86 victories in his tenure in Boulder. "It meant everything to win this game. It's been an honor to play here for these last five years and I'm just so blessed."
Colorado started slowly, missing its first 11 field goal tries as Arizona jumped out to an 8-2 lead.
But the Buffs finally hit a field goal at the 13:42 mark with a Barthelemy layup, and a minute later they started a 12-0 run to take a 16-11 lead. CU hit six of seven shots in the surge, with da Silva hitting a pair of buckets and Battey, Barthelemy, Walker and Luke O'Brien all scoring as well.
But the Wildcats withstood the charge and finally regained the lead, building their cushion back to six late in the half before a Simpson free throw pulled Colorado to within 37-32 at intermission.
TURNING POINT: After trailing by five at intermission, Colorado used a 13-5 surge to open the second half and take a 45-42 lead. The Buffs never trailed again.
WHAT IT MEANS: The victory keeps CU's hopes for finishing in the league's top four alive, but more importantly, gives the Buffs confidence as they head into the regular season finale next week at Utah and then the Pac-12 tournament. Knocking off the No. 2 team in the nation shows that the Buffs can compete with anyone in the Pac-12 when they play with the level of energy they displayed Saturday.
KEY STATISTICS: CU held the Wildcats to 39 percent shooting from the floor (20-for-51) … Colorado held a 35-33 rebounding edge … The Buffs shot 48 percent (31-for-64) from the floor against the Pac-12's leading field goal defense team … CU hit 13 of 15 free throws … The Buffs held a 54-26 edge in points in the paint.
QUOTEWORTHY: "That was a great step in the right direction. Now we have to learn how to play that way every night." — CU head coach Tad Boyle
NEXT UP: The Buffs play just once next week, as they wrap up their regular season Saturday with a 7:30 p.m. game at Utah (ESPNU). CU then heads to the Pac-12 tournament at T-Mobile Arena in Las Vegas, set to run March 9-12.