Ron Baird, news editor

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Pac-12 Semis: Wildcats Deliver KO Punch To Buffs

Buffs still hope for NCAA tourney bid
Release: March 14, 2014
By: B.G. Brooks, Contributing Editor

LAS VEGAS – The Colorado Buffaloes got the first-half start they wanted Friday night against Arizona, but the start of the second was another story – one of shock and maybe a little bit of awe.

The fourth-ranked Wildcats, the top seed in the Pac-12 Conference tournament, held the fifth-seeded Buffs to only two field goals in the second half’s first 12:32, coupled that shutdown with a 20-4 run, and raced away with a 63-43 semifinal win at the MGM Grand Garden Arena.

“In the second half, that thing got away from us quick,” CU coach Tad Boyle said. “If Arizona makes shots and with the way they guard consistently, they’ve got a chance to win a national championship.”

CU's Xavier Talton drives against Arizona

CU’s Xavier Talton drives against Arizona

Arizona (30-3) plays the winner of Friday night’s second semifinal – UCLA vs. Stanford – on Saturday afternoon (4 p.m. MDT) in the Pac-12 championship game. CU (23-11) awaits word on Selection Sunday to make potential NCAA Tournament plans.

“We’re obviously disappointed in the result, but we lost to a darn good Arizona team,” Boyle said. “That’s a hell of a team, a hell of a program. They’ve had an unbelievable year.”

His defense was pit-bull nasty to the Buffs, but Arizona coach Sean Miller returned Boyle’s kind words, complimenting Boyle and his staff on rejuvenating the Buffs after losing point guard Spencer Dinwiddie in mid-January.

Miller said outsiders can’t comprehend the magnitude of such a loss and what it takes to adjust: “I mean it knocks you back. You can’t call timeout, have a month to prepare and think about things. You have to get it right away.

“What Tad and his staff have done and what those players have done has been really nothing short of remarkable. The fact they’re sitting in the NCAA Tournament, our hat’s off to them and we wish them nothing but the best.”

The Buffs could have used some of the post-game goodwill from the Wildcats’ defense in the second half. Ahead only 27-24 at halftime, Arizona allowed a Josh Scott layup at the 18:32 mark, but didn’t permit another CU field goal for almost 5 minutes.

Nearly another 6 minutes passed before the Buffs got their third basket of the second half, and by then the Wildcats had rolled to a 51-32 advantage. The Buffs were on their way to a night of near-record lows:

·       Their 43 points were the lowest since scoring 49 against Illinois (57) in the 2013 NCAA Tournament;

·       Their 29 percent field goal shooting was the lowest since Arizona held CU to 32.7 on Feb. 22 in Boulder;

·       Their 25 rebounds – the Wildcats hauled down 41 – were a season low, as were their 15 field goals.

“We knew they were good defensively,” said Boyle, “and we knew we were going to have to make some shots to beat them. We couldn’t get going. Their defense had something to do with that, our offense had something to do with that. You put those two things together . . .

“Listen, they’re a great defensive team, not a good defensive team, a great defensive team. They’ve shown it game after game all season long.”

When they’re dialed in, the Wildcats aren’t mediocre on offense either. Nick Johnson, the Pac-12’s player of the year, led Arizona with 16 points, getting help from guard P.J. McConnell and 6-7 freshman wing Rondae Hollis-Jefferson with 12 each. All of Hollis-Jefferson’s points came in the second half – and half of them during that explosive stretch when Arizona outscored CU 20-4 to take its 51-32 lead.

Askia Booker (12 points) and Xavier Johnson (11) were the only CU players in double figures. Booker said the Buffs “were right there with them in the first half. It just takes that two to five minutes for them to open up the game – and that’s exactly what they did. Their offensive rebounding was very aggressive, they were knocking down some jump shots. They’re very good.”

The Wildcats’ defense in the class of the Pac-12, said Booker, because “they guard the ball very well. They’re always in gap help. There’s a lot of times I get by a guy and another guy is right there. If I kick it out they’re contesting the shot – and it’s always a great contest. You have to be very efficient and knock down shots to beat this team. If you don’t do that, it’s going to be tough for you, especially if you don’t get stops. And they rebound the ball very well.”

“They’re so physical,” added guard Xavier Talton, who hit a pair of 3-pointers (8 points total) and finished with five treys in the last two games here. “I think their gap help and their guards really guard the ball. That’s a big thing . . . the way Sean Miller recruits, he recruits athletes. Them staying in front of us is a big part of keeping us out of the paint – which is want to do. That’s a big testament to them.”

Among the Buffs’ chief goals was to prevent a devastating early Wildcats run that essentially buried CU in Arizona’s two regular-season wins. The Buffs fell behind 18-4 in their 69-57 loss in Tucson and 22-5 in their 88-61 loss in Boulder.

There was no such surge on Friday night – at least not in the first half after the Buffs managed to stay close (27-24) at intermission. A trey by Gabe York a second before the halftime buzzer gave Arizona its three-point lead.

The Wildcats had gone up 22-13 with 6:08 left in the half, but the Buffs stayed strong. Over the half’s last 6 minutes, CU outscored Arizona 11-4, and Arizona’s 27 points were the third fewest by the Wildcats this season.

CU needed an efficient second-half start, but Arizona wouldn’t allow it. Meanwhile, the Wildcats were getting revved up, quickly scoring outside on baskets by McConnell and a 3-pointer by Johnson, and inside on a Johnson tip-in and another by Hollis-Jefferson.

When Booker finally got CU’s third basket of the half, putting back his own miss and hitting an “and-one,” the Buffs closed to within 38-32 with 13:55 remaining. Still, the game seemed on the verge of slipping away, and the inside work of Hollis-Jefferson provided a significant shove. After hitting a pair of free throws, he scored on another tip-in then powered for a layup to give the Wildcats their biggest lead – 44-32 – with 10:15 to play.

Boyle called a timeout, but the Buffs came out of it with a missed layup by Booker. Trouble – and a 7-0 Wildcats run – were coming: McConnell hit a trey, Gordon scored on a put-back and Jordin Mayes added a lay-up.

Suddenly, the Buffs were down by 19 – 51-32 – and the Garden Arena reverberated with “U of A, U of A” chants. The Wildcats extended their lead to as many as 22 points in the final 5 minutes and the Buffs were left to wait on Sunday and the NCAA Selection Committee.

“I’m proud of our guys,” Boyle said. “We’ve got a lot of fight, a lot of heart. We’ve gotten better over the last three weeks of the season, but it was a disappointing end. But our season’s not over – that’s the good news.”

Contact: BG.Brooks@Colorado.EDU