BOULDER - All Tad Boyle has ever wanted from his Colorado basketball team was for it to compete. But at halftime Saturday at the Coors Events Center his Buffaloes' competitive spirit might have been measured in single figures . . . very low single figures.
Not surprisingly, their halftime deficit against No. 5 Texas was in double figures - 15 points - and that was an improvement on the 22-point advantage the powerful Longhorns had punched up just shy of 5 minutes before the break.
But what was headed toward becoming a UT yawner headed in another direction in the second half. The roaring, rollicking Events Center crowd - a record fourth this season above 11,000 - was treated to 20 glorious minutes of gotcha: CU got competitive, got Texas 91-89, and got itself squarely back into the NCAA Tournament picture.
"We're back in the conversation now," said senior Levi Knutson, who with sophomore Alec Burks provided the Buffs with their second-half offensive lift. "We just have to take care of business this week. These (last) two games are bigger now; they're probably going to determine it."
As large as Saturday's win was in giving CU a signature victory, a pair of final regular-seasons games becomes even larger in nudging the Buffs closer to the NCAA Tournament for the first time since 2003. CU plays at Iowa State Wednesday night, then returns to the Events Center to face Nebraska Saturday, March 5 in the regular-season finale. The Big 12 postseason tournament begins Wednesday, March 8 in Kansas City.
The Buffs' stunning Saturday comeback, believed to be the largest in CU hoops history, squared their Big 12 Conference record at 7-7 (18-11 overall) and dealt the Longhorns only their second Big 12 loss (12-2, 24-5 overall). Said CU senior Cory Higgins: "I've been part of a comeback before, but never of this significance."
Boyle said he was "very, very proud of our team," but admitted that he's "not a bracketologist, not a politician" and simply will depend on his team to play its way more solidly into NCAA Tournament contention. Yet he did call Saturday's outcome "a marquee win that goes to the top of our resume . . . we've had some good wins."
But Saturday's first half saw CU leave the court trailing 48-33 and Boyle "embarrassed . . . I didn't yell or scream (in the locker room), but I probably should have," he said.
Of the halftime atmosphere in the CU locker room, Knutson noted: "I wouldn't say it was angry. Obviously we were frustrated we didn't play well . . . we had urgency, that was the main feeling. We had to pick it up as soon as the ball got checked in for the second half."
Boyle's players knew what they had done (or had not) in the first 20 minutes and knew what was at stake.
"We were getting punked," Higgins said. "We weren't playing like ourselves. They were outhustling, out-rebounding us . . . we knew we had to change that in the second half.
"If we wanted to do what we set out to do this year, we had 20 minutes to turn it around . . . we felt like the postseason might come down to the second half. We just left it all out there."
The Buffs were night-and-day different in the second half, which featured a 24-3 CU run. After losing track of Texas' shooters in the first half, "we wanted to make sure we got out on their shooters (in the second half)," Knutson said. The Buffs were doing little more than waving at J'Covan Brown's three-point attempts, allowing him ample space to hit four-of-five in the first 20 minutes. He hit none in the second.
And there was this very telling stat: At halftime, the Buffs were being out-rebounded 18-14. They finished the game with a 43-39 board edge against the Big 12's top rebounding team.
"Rebounding is a mentality," said Boyle, who had a pair of players in double digits on the boards - freshman Andre Roberson with 11, Burks with 10. "That (second half) shows what we're capable of."
It also showed what Burks is capable of when his game gets in gear. Of his game-best 33 points, 24 were scored in the final 20 minutes. "Alec got us going," Boyle said, calling him "a special player." Higgins said his young teammate "really put us on his back - him and Levi especially putting down big shots the whole second half."
Knutson finished with 21 points, while Higgins added 11. The Buffs also had 21 assists, and their 91 points were the most scored against the Longhorns this year. And CU's 53.3 percent shooting from the field (32-of-60) marked the first time this season Texas had allowed an opponent to top 50 percent.
Longhorns Coach Rick Barnes summed up his team's surprising loss like this: "It's pretty simple; the team that played for 40 minutes won the game. I didn't think we had a real sense of urgency defensively from the get-go."
The Buffs stayed close for the first 4½ minutes, matching the Longhorns basket-for-basket and even taking an 11-9 lead on Burks' first field goal. But then the drought hit and Texas flourished.
Over the next 6:21, the Longhorns outscored the Buffs 16-0 and took a 25-11 lead. CU broke the dry spell on a Knutson layup, but Texas' 18-2 run had put the crowd in a trance.
The Longhorns led by as many as 22 (43-21) on a three-point play by Gary Johnson with 4:39 before the break. By intermission, the Buffs had stirred a little and trailed 48-33 - their largest halftime deficit of the season.
Burks was a paltry 3-of-11 from the field in the first half, which should have been an incentive for the second. Apparently, it was.
With Texas up 58-43, Burks went on a tear, scoring 11 of CU's next 14 points as the Buffs pulled to 58-55 with 12:55 to play. Burks got his points in a variety of ways, finally finding his jump shot as well as fiercely going to the basket. In the midst of CU's comeback, Texas had an unthinkable one field goal on 25 possessions, going 1-of-17 over a six-minute span.
The only downside of Burks' afternoon was his free throw shooting: He was 12-of-20 from the line, and the Buffs finished 19-of-32 from the line. But Texas was no better, hitting just 20 of its 34 attempts. Boyle attributed some of that to his team's second-half pace at altitude: "Thank God for the altitude."
But Boyle and his players called the Buffs' free-throw misses atypical. "I'll trust our team with free throws any day," Boyle said, and Knutson added of Burks: "Alec isn't going to have too many of those days."
After Marcus Relphorde buried a three-pointer from the right corner to cut the Horns' lead to 58-53, Burks hustled for a loose ball, beat his defender down the court and twisted inside for a layup. CU had pulled to 58-55, and the once-subdued Events Center crowd rediscovered its voice.
Burks came out for a 90-second breather and Texas got three free throws from Tristan Thompson to go up 61-55 with 11:28 remaining. But Burks countered, making four of six free throws as CU closed to 61-59.
Then it was Knutson Time. The steely senior scored nine of CU's next 11 points, draining three treys as the Buffs surged ahead 70-65 - their largest lead of the game to that point - with 6:58 to play. Knutson's first three-pointer in that run put CU ahead 62-61 - its first advantage since 11-9.
Over the next 2 minutes, Burks and Knutson kept applying the pressure, accounting for 10 points between them - each hit a trey - as the Buffs built a 75-67 lead with under 5 minutes remaining.
Next, it was Higgins' turn. Playing in his school record 123rd game, the senior converted a conventional three-point play to push CU up 78-67 - a remarkable 11-point lead after once trailing by 22 - at the 4:06 mark.
But the Longhorns didn't cower. A dunk and a free throw by Thompson brought them to 81-73 with 2:32 left, and six points - three free throws and a deep trey by Jordan Hamilton - he and Brown led UT with 21 each - cut CU's lead to 87-83 with 29.7 seconds left.
Less than 10 seconds later, another deep three by Hamilton trimmed Texas' deficit to 88-86, but Burks answered with a pair of free throws to push CU ahead by four (90-86) with 14 seconds showing.
Finally, Hamilton misfired. Higgins pulled down maybe the biggest rebound of his career, was fouled and hit one of two free throws. Johnson buried a three at the buzzer - but the Buffs' two-point win was secure and ecstatic CU students rushed the court.
And this time, it was justified.
"It was crazy," Burks said of the wild on-court scramble. "You got to defend yourself. I wanted to get out of there . . . people were grabbing at me."
But they were grabbing for all the right reasons. For the Buffs and their fans, it was that kind of special afternoon, maybe inching toward a special season. Next week could determine it.