LOS ANGELES - After a disheartening drop during the midsection of the regular season, the Colorado Buffaloes appear to be back on the ascent - and the timing couldn't be better.
Showing the same steady improvement that second-year coach Linda Lappe has detected over the past 21/2 weeks, the Buffs cruised to a 19-point first half lead on Wednesday night and eliminated Utah 55-41 in the first round of the Pac-12 Conference women's basketball tournament.
No. 10 seed CU (18-12) plays No. 2 seed California on Thursday (6 p.m., MST) at USC's Galen Center. The Bears swept the Buffs during the regular season.
With their convincing 10-point win against Oregon State in their final regular-season game, the Buffs now have won back-to-back games for the first time since late January. But Lappe insisted her team's improvement has "not only been in the last two (games), but probably the last five or six. We gained confidence at Stanford and at California (both losses) and against Oregon State we saw everything put together.
"We're limiting our mental mistakes and staying steady with that. We're not getting tired mentally or physically."
At the outset, the Buffs were fresh, physical and at times frenetically good on Wednesday against the No. 7 seed Utes, whose regular-season visit to Boulder resulted in an overtime loss for the home team. Utah (15-15) was more physical in that game, and CU was determined to flip that in the Pac-12 tournament. And that's how it happened.
"We didn't let their physicality bother us, that was the biggest difference in this game and the last one," Lappe said.
Utah coach Anthony Levrets agreed: "Colorado took us out of what we do; they sped us up and were clearly the aggressor. They were the better team tonight."
Indeed, it was all CU, almost all the time.
Brittany Wilson led the Buffs with 21 points - 18 in the first half - and Chucky Jeffery added 20 - 14 in the second half. Jeffery also collected 14 rebounds for her 17th career double-double.
"Our game plan was to attack the rim," Jeffery said. "We changed it up a little (from the last meeting) . . . we wanted to attack as much as we could."
CU trailed three times early in the first half, falling behind 3-0 on a three-pointer by Cheyenne Wilson on the game's first possession. But that basket and the opening six minutes were in no way indicative of what was coming.
After Utah's Wilson hit another trey to put her team up 10-8, CU took control with its pair of Wilsons - twins Brittany and Ashley, of nearby Long Beach. Brittany, who had scored CU's first seven points, hit a short jumper to tie the score at 10-10 - and the Buffs kept on going . . . and going.
After Cheyenne Wilson's trey with just over 14 minutes left before intermission, Utah didn't get another field goal until the half's final minute. During that span, CU launched a 22-1 run and shot ahead 30-11.
Forward Taryn Wicijowski, who led the Utes with 18 points, worked inside for a pair of baskets in the last minute, drawing the Utes to 32-15 at halftime. But the first 20 minutes were a nightmare for Utah, which hit only six of its 26 field goal attempts (23.1 percent) and went 13 minutes minus a field goal. The Utes' 15 points were the lowest by a Buffs opponent since the 1997 team held Iowa State to 12 in that season's Big 12 tournament.
But could CU keep the hammer down and the intensity up in the second half?
After the Buffs missed their first two shots and the Utes hit their first two, Lappe called a timeout with 18:27 remaining. The Buffs came out of it . . . and missed another shot.
Utah got one of two free throws from Michelle Plouffe before Julie Seabrook banked in a short jumper from the right side for CU's first points of the half at the 17:30 mark. The Buffs led 34-20, then 36-20 when Jeffery hit a runner from the right baseline.
Had order (for CU) been restored?
Temporarily. But the Buffs were being semi-abused inside by the 6-3 Wicijowski, who scored seven of the Utes' first 10 points in the second half and brought her team to within 38-25 with just under 15 minutes to play. When she hit a pair of free throws about 8 minutes later, Utah cut the deficit to seven (43-36).
Were the Buffs worried? Not a bit, said Brittany Wilson: "No . . . we knew they're we were waiting for their run (and) we were waiting to make our run. You don't get nervous."
The Buffs didn't and immediately answered, getting one of two free throws from Jeffery, a Jeffery layup and a two free throws by Brittany Wilson to restore a 12-point lead (48-36) with 4:26 left.
Utah never got closer than 11 the rest of the way, with Jeffery hitting seven of eight free throws in the final 2:52 to seal it.
Lappe called the Buffs' defensive effort "really solid, and I thought that helped us get the victory . . . I thought our team did a lot of nice things from the start. We had a little trouble scoring (to start), but I loved the lead we were able to get by halftime. Then we fought back when (Utah) rallied and hit some free throws."
In their game against Cal in Boulder, the Buffs owned a 12-point lead with about 12 minutes left in the second half. They wound up losing 68-55. Cal won 64-43 in Berkeley.
Lappe called the Bears "a solid team, they play lot of players . . . just keep bring them off the bench." Protecting the ball, she said, will be critical Thursday night: "At their place, they hurt us with their press . . . turnovers lead to layups against Cal. But I like what we're doing now; we're in a good spot."