CHARLESTON, S.C. -
If some of the Colorado Buffaloes are still wet behind the ears, they are also gritty beyond their years. The young Buffs capped a rugged three-game run with an 81-74 win against Murray State here Sunday night to win the Charleston Classic, giving CU its first in-season tournament title since the 2002-03 team won the Pepsi Classic in Charlotte, N.C.
It was a good week for CU in the dank, drizzly Old South for a number of reasons, starting with:
- Sophomore Askia Booker compiled 58 points in three games - a 19.3 average and a career-high 23 in the championship game - and was named the tournament's MVP. No other Buffs were chosen to the all-tournament team, more of a testament to the strong and individually talented field than a CU slight.
- After successfully defending three premier point guards - Dayton's Kevin Dillard, Baylor's Pierre Jackson, Murray State's Isaiah Canaan - CU sophomore Spencer Dinwiddie might return to Boulder with a lock-down rep. He was into them like a virus. "He did a great job . . . he took on the responsibility of their guards," Booker said. "I give all the praise to him. He took all the pressure off of me." But Dinwiddie also found time to score: He finished the championship game with 13 points.
- Freshmen forwards Josh Scott and Xavier Johnson and freshmen guards Eli Stalzer and Xavier Talton did what was asked of them in their roles. Scott scored nine of his 13 points in Sunday night's decisive second half, when CU wanted to take the battle to Murray State in the low block. He also snagged six rebounds. Stalzer and Talton spelled Booker and Dinwiddie. Johnson, said coach Tad Boyle, let a couple of fouls diminish his aggression.
- Junior Andre Roberson scored in double figures (16) for the first time this season and finished one rebound short (nine) of his first double-double this year. Even though it was waved off because of an alleged charge, he had a thunderous dunk in the second half that Boyle called an energy boost for his team.
- The Buffs discovered that, yes, they can shoot free throws when a game is on the line. After clanking and clunking them in the first two games - including missing 14 of 18 against Baylor - they sank 27 of 36 Sunday night. In the game's final 7:58, CU hit 18 of 20. Dinwiddie stuck 11 of 12.
- And Boyle went to 4-0 for the first time in his three seasons as CU's head coach and now must find room for the Charleston Classic trophy alongside the Pac-12 Conference tournament hardware his team claimed last March. Boyle also got a congratulatory handshake Sunday night from funny man Bill Murray - no relation to the basketball team - and promised he "didn't throw any Caddy Shack lines at him. He probably gets that all the time. It was good to meet him and he said he liked our team."
What wasn't to like about the Buffs in their three games here, particularly Sunday night? CU advanced to the championship game with a 67-57 win against Dayton, then by edging No. 16 Baylor 60-58. Murray State started four seniors and a junior from a team that went 31-2 last season.
Booker called winning the tournament "a confidence booster for everybody. We played three good teams . . . we can play with anybody. There's nobody in the country we can't compete against and win. We play team ball and it comes down to defense and rebounding at the end of the day. Coach tells that to us every day."
Shooting 45.2 percent from the field, the Racers are the only team this season the Buffs haven't held below their goal of 40 percent. But CU outrebounded Murray State 35-30 and won the board battle in two of the three games here.
Boyle was particularly proud of his team's ball screen defense against the high-profile trio of point guards the Buffs faced. "It was a team victory, offensively and defensively, and I couldn't be more proud of our team and players," he said.
But Boyle, of course, believes there can/will be improvement through November and into next month. The Buffs will need it; They don't play during Thanksgiving week, returning to the Coors Events Center on Sunday, Nov. 25 to face Air Force (6 p.m., Pac-12 Network). Boyle is looking at this week as quality practice time.
CU led 33-31 at halftime Sunday night, rallying from a pair of six-point deficits. Boyle had cautioned his team about Canaan's long-range shooting, and it didn't take long for the CU coach's words to ring true. The 6-1 senior took six of Murray State's 14 first-half three-point attempts and hit half of them - the last two a couple of steps beyond NBA range.
Dinwiddie rolled his eyes in disbelief. "People just don't do that," he said. "Not that people can't, but it's just the coach never says please go and shoot a 35-footer. So I wasn't expecting it. He's a great player, very difficult to guard."
Canaan finished with a team-best 21 points, but didn't hit a trey in the second half.
The Buffs hurt themselves with a season-worst 11 first-half turnovers. But they continued to compensate with defense and rebounding, holding the Racers to 35.7 percent from the field (10-of-28) and outboarding them 19-14 in the first 20 minutes. And in the second half, CU cut its turnovers to six.
The Buffs opened the second half with a 6-2 run, getting baskets from Johnson, Sabatino Chen and Roberson to go up 39-33, with that six-point advantage CU's largest of the game to that point. But Boyle also had warned his players to keep 6-7 Ed Daniel off the glass, and the next two Racers possessions showed why. A put-back stuff by the wild-haired Daniel cut the Buffs lead to 39-35 and a layup on the next trip made it 39-37.
Then Murray State's three-point shooters switched on. Stacy Wilson hit one, giving the Racers a 40-39 lead, Dinwiddie banked in a trey to push the Buffs back in front 42-40, then Dexter Fields answered with a triple to give Murray State a 43-42 edge.
A back-and-forth half appeared to be underway until CU unleashed a 6-0 run highlighted by back-to-back stuffs by Scott on a baseline move and Booker on a breakaway. That surge opened a 48-45 Buffs lead with just under 12 minutes remaining.
Seconds later, after Murray State coach Steve Prohm was whistled for a technical, a pair of Dinwiddie free throws sent CU's advantage to 50-45. Things were heating up. Roberson picked up his third foul when he was called for a charge on his he-man jam over Daniel.
At the 10 minute mark, a sweet baseline move by Scott resulted in a layup and capped a 10-0 run that had opened a 52-45 CU lead. Murray State was far from done, answering with a 7-0 run that featured another trey by Fields to tie the score at 52-52 with 8 minutes left.
The next 3 minutes were all Buffs; an 11-1 run was highlighted by free throws from Scott, Adams and Chen, another Scott field goal from the low post and a Booker trey from the left wing.
"I'm a better jump shooter (this season)," Booker said. "I put in a lot of hours in the gym this summer. Overall, it's confidence. That's a big thing in anyone's game . . . I'm not saying I'm cocky, but I believe it's going to go in when I shoot it."
With 5:02 to play, CU led 63-53. Murray State closed to 63-58 on a conventional three-point play by Daniel - and Roberson also picked up his fourth foul in that sequence.
At 1:51, another trey by Fields brought the Racers to 68-65 and prompted a timeout by Prohm. CU answered with a free throw line jumper by Booker, two free throws by Chen. Wilson hit a long trey with a minute remaining (72-68), but Scott negated that with a layup and a free throw to restore CU's seven-point lead (75-68).
Roberson fouled out with 13.4 seconds left, sending Daniel to the free throw line for a potential three-point play. But he missed and the Buffs' lead was 77-72. Dinwiddie hit another four free throws in the final 10 seconds and this one was done.
Winning the tournament, said Dinwiddie, "means a lot; it gets our players used to winning. We don't want our team ever to get used to losing. It kind of builds that pride and sense of urgency, that will to say we don't lose. Period. That's just what it is."
Should the Buffs be included in this week's Top 25? Booker said it "doesn't matter," Dinwiddie said, "Yes . . . keep it conservative and go like (No.) 17." CU's last Top 25 appearance was in 2005-06, coming in at No. 25 in the USA Today coaches poll.
The Buffs did their parts in Charleston, the polls are best left to others. It's very early in a long season, but you can't help but feel a buzz from how it's started.