KANSAS CITY, Mo. - When it was over, when Alec Burks' supreme second-half takeover was done, this was Tad Boyle's only definitive take on Colorado's NCAA Tournament chances: If Wednesday's first-round Big 12 Conference tournament game against Iowa State had ended any other way, his take wouldn't be needed.
But for good reason, Boyle is beginning to believe that because of Burks and the Buffaloes' resilience, all things are possible - and most certainly his school's first NCAA Tournament berth since 2003.
Down by six points, the Buffs outscored the Cyclones 13-5 over the final 3:02 and emerged with a 77-75 win that keeps CU's name being tipped back and forth by NCAA Tournament bracketologists. Did Wednesday's dramatic win nudge the Buffs over the threshold? No official word on entry or exclusion will come until Sunday, and Boyle isn't going to play that guessing game.
"I don't know what it means, I wish I had an answer for that," Boyle said, but agreeing that a second loss in a week to the Cyclones would have made for a much clearer - but undesirable - answer.
To reach the NCAAs, fifth-seeded CU (20-12) might not need a victory here Thursday in the Big 12 quarterfinals against fourth-seeded, No. 19/23 Kansas State (22-9). Then again, what would it hurt? After Wednesday's second-half comeback, the Buffs are feeling more comfortable about being here and wouldn't mind staying through Saturday's championship game.
If Burks continues to play as he did Wednesday, an extended stay might not be farfetched. Of his team-best 29 points, 25 were scored in the second half. But he did more than show his athleticism around the rim in the final 20 minutes, snaring six of his 15 rebounds and dealing five of his six assists, all with no second-half turnovers. After missing his only free throw attempt in the first half, he hit 11-of-13 in the second.
"Holy cow," said Boyle. "He made every play down the stretch for us when we needed a play to be made. Yeah, he was terrific. I kept saying I want to get him out and get him a rest, but I couldn't afford to take him out of the game."
After the Cyclones had gone ahead 70-64 with 3:02 to play, Burks hit a jumper (70-66) then drove the length of the court after an ISU miss and, while headed for the rim, kicked the ball back to Levi Knutson, who did what he does best. He buried a three-pointer that pulled CU to within a point, 70-69.
"Play of the game . . . finding Levi in front of our bench," Boyle said. "That's when our guys started saying OK, and we got back in it. It got us back to one and got our mojo back. And once our guys started believing, once that play happened, I thought that gave us the juice to get over the top."
Knutson acknowledged, "It was a big play. We needed to make plays down the stretch, and Alec was creating. He draws a lot of help, and he was able to find me for a wide-open shot. I expect to knock those down - and he expects me to knock them down."
Singling out that Burks assist was fair, but there were so many big-play choices. Burks stepped up with a conventional three-point play, tying the score at 72-72 with 1:45 left. (And there was discussion by officials on whether Burks' field goal had been a trey, perhaps offering a four-point chance.)
More Burks bigness to come . . . On ISU's following possession, CU controlled the rebound on a Diante Garrett miss and Boyle called time out with 1:19 showing. The Buffs came out of that timeout with a play freshly drawn by Boyle; Burks finished it with a twist, playing contortionist on the right baseline and hitting a short jumper to give CU its first lead (74-72) since 44-43.
"(It) was a play we'd never run and he made an unbelievable shot out of it," Boyle said. "Great players need to make great plays for you . . . if we're going to lose the game we're going to lose it with our great player and the ball in his hands."
But Burks had much help in this win. Cory Higgins contributed 16 points and did a commendable job in guarding Jake Anderson (33 points) down the stretch. The reliable Knutson added 12 points, but Marcus Relphorde, after scoring 40 points in his last two games, struggled shooting (two-of-seven) and finished with nine points. He had six rebounds, but also five turnovers - including a late travel that gave the ball back to ISU in the final half-minute.
The Buffs' bench outscored the Cyclones' 21-7, and CU won the rebound battle 48-36, with freshman board master Andre Roberson grabbing a season-high 15. Roberson, who scored nine points, sank his biggest pair of free throws this season to push CU ahead 76-72 with 15.6 seconds to play.
Said Boyle: "(Overall) confidence hasn't been a problem with Andre, but at the free throw line, there's a little bit of an issue . . . what can you say?"
For openers, clutch will do.
But CU's ace of the afternoon was the slender Burks, whose sophomore highlight reel had Missouri (36 points) and Texas (33) as its top two entries. Wednesday makes three.
Burks said he didn't believe everything was falling right for him "because I was missing free throws (two in the second half). But I was in a groove enough that the basket looked wide open. I felt like I got to the line a lot . . . I felt better against Texas, though, because I was making a lot of outside shots."
If upsetting the Longhorns returned the Buffs to NCAA Tournament conversation, handling the Cyclones keeps them there. "Every time we win I feel good - no matter who we beat," Burks said. "But there was some extra meat on this game, yeah. Without this game, nobody's talking about us."
ISU Coach Fred Hoiberg found it difficult to stop talking about Burks. "I thought (he) was a lottery pick before today," Hoiberg said. "And nothing changed my mind the way he went out there and performed today. He's a big-time player - prototypical wing in the NBA just the way he plays. He does such a good job drawing fouls, drawing contact. He handles the ball extremely well and he's great in transition . . . Burks was awesome today."
Now, Burks becomes K-State's problem - and vice versa. In CU's regular-season series sweep, Burks scored 12 points in the Buffs' 74-66 win in Manhattan and eight in the 58-56 win in Boulder. He will be the Wildcats' defensive focal point, just as senior guard Jacob Pullen will be for the Buffs.
Burks called the resurgent Wildcats, whose only loss in their past eight games was in Boulder, "physical, tough . . . they play hard. That's what you've always got to overcome when you're playing them. I think if we just match their intensity, play our game, we'll come out with a 'W.'"
Added Knutson on K-State: "They've got a commitment to the defensive end, they grind it out against you. We want to get up and down, but we've shown we can play that game, too."
Play it well enough and the Buffs will leave no doubt about how they fit into next week's NCAA plans. CU did its part Wednesday to stay alive and got assists from Nebraska and Baylor, a pair of Big 12 bubble teams that lost their first-round games.
The Buffs could be in without a win Thursday, but with one . . . No guarantees, but you have to like the chances.