BOULDER - Mark Monday night down as a "rust buster" for the Colorado Buffaloes. Of more importance, also mark it down as a 'W.'
Overcoming their own sluggish start and withstanding their opponent's frantic finish, the Buffs eventually put away California State University-Bakersfield 70-64 at the Coors Events Center.
"That was a good win for us," said CU coach Tad Boyle. "I thought there were some really positive things that came out, but there's also lots of room for improvement - and that excites me as a coach."
He was noticeably more excited than he was 10 days previously, when Wyoming visited the Events Center and snapped CU's 27-game non-conference home court winning streak. Boyle gave his players two days off, then practiced them for the next eight.
Not playing for that long and laboring through a week of semester finals, said Boyle, resulted in "a little rust and mental fatigue" that was evident in the Buffs struggling to find the basket and falling behind by as many as 11 points in the first half.
"We didn't get out of the gate (Monday night) . . . and we've been a team that's always gotten out fast," said Boyle.
But if the Buffs didn't quite start or finish the night rust-free - they allowed the Roadrunners to cut a 12-point deficit to four in the final 31/2 minutes - they compensated nicely in the night's mid-section.
Senior Carlon Brown scored eight of his of 15 points when the Buffs were in first-half recovery, and reserve Sabatino Chen provided a huge shot of hustle that spanned the last 5 seconds of the first half and stayed with Boyle's bunch well into the second.
"I thought Sabatino's minutes in the first half energized the team," said Boyle, adding that Brown, who had eight assists to go with his 15 points, "was terrific . . . he played within himself. Those two performances (by Chen and Brown) were terrific."
Chen finished with six points, five rebounds, a pair of steals and a blocked first-half shot - which led to the game's most disputed whistle but also revved up the Buffs and the crowd. Counting Brown, four Buffs reached double figures, topped by Andre Roberson's 18, 14 in the second half. Spencer Dinwiddie added 13 and Austin Dufault 10.
Boyle said the game turned on CU's second-half efficiency in three areas: committing only four turnovers (as opposed to eight in the first 20 minutes), limiting CSUB to 36.8 percent shooting (14-for-38), and hitting 20-of-21 free throws (22-of-26 for the game).
"But nothing is going to come easy for our guys . . . our margin for error is pretty small," added Boyle, whose team improved to 6-4. The Roadrunners, who have played seven of their last eight games on the road and suffered their fourth consecutive loss, dropped to 5-6.
"We've played three in the last six days," said CSUB coach Rod Barnes. "To come here and play in the altitude and have our kids hang in there the way they did says a lot. I'm proud of them."
Boyle juggled his starting lineup, scratching senior point guard Nate Tomlinson in favor of sophomore Jeremy Adams. With that move, Dinwiddie moved to the point, but Boyle wasn't through shuffling.
Freshman Askia Booker replaced Adams less than a minute into the game, and Tomlinson took Dinwiddie's place at the 18:18 mark. Freshman Damiene Cain didn't play because he'd been sick and missed two of the last three days of practice.
But CSUB wasn't paying attention to the opposition, concentrating instead on taking control early. The Roadrunners led by as many as 11 points twice in the first half before the Buffs figured out they were in for a game.
With his team trailing 20-9, Brown began asserting himself - and the Buffs needed it. CU embarked on a 14-2 run, with Brown scoring eight of those points, and finally took its first lead (23-22) on a fast-break dunk by Booker with 4 minutes before intermission.
After that, the lead changed hands three times, with the Buffs appearing to tie the score at 27-27 on a highlight hustle play by Chen. The junior transfer made a block at the defensive end, got control of the ball and dribbled furiously to beat the clock. It appeared he had done so with a layup, but instead was whistled for a charging foul.
The scoreboard read CSUB 27, CU 25 - and the officiating crew left the court to boos and catcalls.
"I didn't think that was a charge . . . I thought I got around him," Chen said. "The ref actually came up to me after and said he might have missed it."
CU shot only 45.8 percent (11-of-24) from the field in the first 20 minutes. But after allowing the Roadrunners to hit eight of their first 15 shots, the Buffs needed to tighten their 'D' - and did they ever.
CSUB made one field goal in the half's final 12:41, finishing 9-for-21 (42.9 percent) from the field. And CU's defensive clamps didn't come off in the second half.
But the Buffs needed a fast start in the final 20 minutes - and Roberson provided it, scoring six consecutive points to open the half. And when Dinwiddie added two free throws, a put-back and two more foul shots, CU had its largest lead of the night to that point - 37-29 - with 15:14 remaining.
"I thought we played well during the second half, even though we slacked there at the end," Roberson said. "We shared the ball more in the second half and it paid off."
CSUB closed to within five points twice in the minutes thereafter, but CU opened a 10-point lead (47-37) after an Adams dunk made possible by Dufault's save of a loose ball at the baseline.
The Roadrunners crept to within six points (47-41) before the Buffs answered with an 8-2 run - four of the points on two Chen layups - and went up by a dozen (55-43) with 41/2 minutes left.
The Roadrunners were gassed, but not quite gone. In the final minute, they got a pair of treys by Robert Hayes and Tyrone White, then a conventional three-point play by White to close to 68-64 with 3.6 seconds left. But Brown converted two free throws at that point, making the Buffs 11-of-12 in the final 1:30, to put it out of reach.
CSUB finished with three more boards (33-30) than CU and had 17 offensive rebounds and 24 second-chance points to CU's 12. And Barnes' bench outscored Boyle's 30-12.
But Boyle was more concerned with his team boxing out on free throws, calling that shortcoming "an Achilles heel for this team. We have to correct it to win close games in the Pac-12 . . . Free throw box outs drive me crazy and our team is not very good at it."
The Buffs have two home non-conference games remaining. They play again Thursday (7 p.m.), taking on Texas Southern at 7 p.m., then close out non-conference play against New Orleans on Wednesday, Dec. 28 (7 p.m.).
CU debuts in the Pac-12 on New Year's Eve (4 p.m.) against Utah in the Events Center, and also plays host to Washington (Thursday, Jan. 5, 7 p.m.) and Washington State (Saturday, Jan. 7, 2 p.m.).
Tickets, with prices starting at $10, can be purchased at CUBuffs.com/tickets or by calling 303-49-BUFFS.