LOS ANGELES - In their break-in season, the Colorado Buffaloes weren't supposed to get a glimpse of the upper regions of the Pac-12 Conference. With one more win, they can look down at the rest of their new league.
With the C-Unit's chants of "WE DON'T NEED NO ALTITUDE" echoing through the Staples Center, the gutsy Buffs once again did their blue-collar best at sea level. CU erased second-seeded California 70-59 Friday night in the Pac-12 semifinals and set up a Saturday afternoon date (4 p.m., MST) with fourth-seeded Arizona for the conference tournament championship.
"I told the team tonight I think we found our heart," CU coach Tad Boyle said. "It's been there all year . . . but this team has found its heart here in Los Angeles."
Win a win Saturday, the No. 6 seed Buffs, who last played for a league tournament title in 1990 in the Big Eight Conference, could earn their first NCAA Tournament berth since 2003. The Pac-12 tournament champ is an automatic entry in the NCAA's field of 68.
But for Boyle and his team - spurned last March by the NCAA - Selection Sunday, the Big Dance and bubble-bursting are afterthoughts.
"We don't talk about bubbles," Boyle said. "What these guys went through last year, we don't get into that . . . I don't want to talk about the NCAA Tournament. We just want to come here (Saturday) and get the job done."
The Buffs have gotten it done for three straight days in L.A., away from home. Friday night could have been Senior Night for CU; upperclassmen Carlon Brown (17), Austin Dufault (15) and Nate Tomlinson (10) combined for 42 points. Not to be outdone - which has rarely happened in this tournament - sophomore Andre Roberson matched Brown's point total and finished one rebound shy of his third double-double in as many games here.
"Carlon made some big-time plays," Boyle said. "(He's) playing with a sense of urgency right now that I love. Obviously, offensively he's been feeling it. We had some great individual performances like we did (Thursday) night. Andre Roberson was terrific, and Austin Dufault . . . I can't say enough about our team and their toughness over the last two games."
CU needs to fight off fatigue for one more day, and Dufault believes it will be done. "We can worry about resting and all that stuff afterwards," he said. "Right now we have a team that's playing mentally tough, and guys are banged up and playing through fatigue. (Saturday) I think we're going to be playing on a lot of adrenaline . . . that's really what's going to have to fuel us."
And firing them to this point, said Boyle, has been a preseason prediction of an 11th-place finish: "Yeah, it's motivated these guys. We've talked about it. I've probably beat it over their heads a little bit too much. But any time I feel like we're letting down a little bit or we need a good practice, I just throw it out there. The one thing I love about our team is our competitiveness."
The Buffs and the fourth-seeded Wildcats, who advanced to Saturday's championship by defeating No. 9 seed Oregon State 72-61 in Friday night's first semifinal game, split their two regular-season games. The Buffs won 64-63 in Boulder, the Wildcats 71-57 in Tucson. Arizona (23-10) and CU (22-11) are the conference's top two defensive teams, which Boyle called fitting for a title game.
"They're number one in field goal percentage defense, we're number two," he said. "It's a quick turnaround, but I know our guys are ready to go. We're going to be playing with a lot of emotion . . . I'm sure they are, too; a lot's at stake." Like CU, Arizona likely is flying under the radar of the NCAA Selection Committee.
It wasn't perfect, but the Buffs' start Friday night couldn't have been much better. They hit five of their first six field goal attempts and took a 12-2 lead. Among those five baskets were back-to-back three-pointers by Tomlinson, who had hit one-of-six from behind the arc in CU's first two tournament games. (CU finished 5-of-14 from beyond the arc.)
The Bears were counting on the Buffs cooling off - and they did. Over the next 10 minutes, CU went 2-of-12 from the field and allowed Cal to creep back to within three (17-14). But the Buffs found enough energy to launch a 9-3 run and pulled ahead by nine (26-17) with just over 5 minutes before the break.
But there was more ebb than flow for CU from that point until the break. A 10-2 Cal run to close the half nearly canceled CU's 12-2 start, and the Buffs went to the locker room to regroup and reenergize holding a 28-27 lead.
"We've got to find a way to finish first halves better," Boyle said. "That's two nights in a row we haven't done that very well."
Cal scored the first two points of the second half - a layup in transition by Harper Kemp - to take its first lead of the game (29-28), then got another jumper in transition by Allen Crabbe to go up 31-28.
It was the Bears' largest lead, but it was hardly daunting. Consecutive baskets at the rim by Dufault and Askia Booker pushed the Buffs back in front 34-33 - and a back-and-forth final 15 minutes appeared to be taking shape.
At the 10-minute mark there had been six lead changes and two ties, but the Buffs had taken a 47-42 lead after a 7-0 run on baskets by Brown, Roberson and a Booker trey.
At the 5-minute mark, CU had a 56-46 lead - its biggest since 15-4 - and it was growing. After a 42-42 tie, the Buffs launched a 17-4 run and shot ahead 59-46. Dufault scored eight points during the surge and Brown contributed five.
A three-pointer by Crabbe (18 points) brought Cal to within 10 (59-49) with 3:50 remaining, and a pair of free throws by David Kravish pulled the Bears to within eight (59-51) 32 seconds later.
Cal closed to within seven twice in the final 2:24, but CU wasn't going to let this one slip. The Buffs got four free throws from Spencer Dinwiddie and Roberson, followed by a windmill dunk by Brown after a steal, to go up 69-58 entering the final minute. This night on the court was all but over, but CU's celebration was just getting underway.
CU was outrebounded 31-25, but enough was done elsewhere to compensate. For the second straight night, the Buffs finished the game with single-digit turnovers (nine) while forcing the Bears into 17, worth 23 CU points. The Buffs went 15-for-18 from the free throw line and had 12 second-chance points to the Bears' seven. And CU's defense held Cal to its third-lowest point total of the season, the second coming in a 70-57 loss in Boulder. Cal shot 42.9 percent (21-of-49) from the field, CU shot 50 percent (25-of-50).
Brown, who has emerged as the Buffs' leading scorer in L.A. (16.7 average in the three games), said he was unsure of the CU program's conference tournament history. He was dead certain, though, about the Buffs' recent hoops past.
"We've never been in a position like this," he said. "Now it's all about one game, one time (Saturday) and we're going to come out and give it everything we have."