BOULDER - What started as a bit of a struggle ended in an impressive stroll Saturday night for the University of Colorado women's basketball team.
The unbeaten Buffaloes (4-0) found their groove midway through the first half and stayed with it the rest of the way, overrunning San Diego State 67-53 to win the Omni Classic at the Coors Events Center.
CU has won 16 of its 26 in-season tournaments, which for 22 years was called the Coors Classic.
Three CU players reached double figures, topped by redshirt freshman Arielle Roberson's 17 points. Sophomore Jen Reese added 14 and senior Chucky Jeffery 12. Reese also grabbed a game-best nine rebounds, while Roberson added seven.
Roberson was named the tournament's MVP, an award Jeffery had claimed the past two years. Joining both on the all-tournament team were Auburn's Tyrese Tanner, Texas A&M-Corpus Christi's Janae Blount and San Diego State's Courtney Clements, who led her team Saturday night with 19 points.
Roberson called winning the award "a really big honor; I couldn't have done it without my teammates." And Jeffery was happy to see the award passed to a teammate: "She played a heck of a game . . . she earned it."
Defeating the talented Aztecs, an NCAA Tournament last season, was a benchmark November win for the Buffs and third-year coach Linda Lappe. She acknowledged that it was her best non-conference win at CU, primarily because her team dealt with and overcame adversity against a physical opponent.
Said Lappe: "It was a great game throughout, two good teams and lot of great players on that court. What we were able to do in the second half . . . it was not for the faint of heart. I enjoyed seeing our team step up to that level to win."
San Diego State is coached by former CU assistant Beth Burns, who admitted her homecoming tugged at her heart: "It was really difficult at first because I kept singing the fight song . . . I said to myself, 'What am I doing?' Boulder will always be one of my homes; I loved it here."
As Lappe has done after the Buffs' previous three wins, she pointed to her team's balance and depth in the post as keys in overtaking the Aztecs, who led by nine points in the early going. Along with the frontline productivity of Roberson and Reese, CU got eight points and three rebounds from Rachel Hargis and five points and three rebounds from Meagan Malcolm-Peck.
Lappe said she and her staff had challenged her frontline players to match San Diego State's physical play: "We challenged them before the game and they took it on . . . they were the difference makers."
Added Jeffery: "We can put any mix on the floor and our energy level won't drop . . . we've got players. We've got so much more of a post presence now . . . it's great."
The Buffs led 28-23 at halftime, but getting that five-point lead was difficult. When the Aztecs raced ahead 6-0, it doubled the largest deficit the Buffs had faced in their three previous games. And San Diego State wasn't content with that.
Over the next 5 minutes, the Aztecs built a 14-5 advantage and were limiting the Buffs' looks at the basket. But at the 13:19 mark, CU began to click - mainly because it thumbed up its defensive intensity and matched San Diego State's physicality.
"We were trying to force things," Roberson said. "I don't know if it was nerves or whatever, but we needed to get on the same page." Once that happened and the season's first test of adversity was passed, "It showed us who we really are . . . we're a tough team, they're a tough team."
At about the 6 minute mark, the Aztecs were 5-of-17 from the field - and that made field goal number included San Diego State hitting its first two baskets of the game.
The Buffs began creeping back into it and fashioned a 13-2 run. They finally caught the Aztecs at 16-16 on a Roberson follow of her own miss, then passed the visitors at 18-16 on a short Reese jumper.
In the half's final 2:15, CU outscored San Diego State 7-1 to take its five-point lead to the locker room. During that span, CU got its only two treys of the first 20 minutes, courtesy of Roberson and Malcolm-Peck.
A 5-0 run to open the second half gave the Buffs their largest lead of the game (33-23) - and they kept the pedal down. After the Aztecs closed to within six, a 7-2 CU spurt opened an 11-point advantage (42-31) with 13:02 to play. Reese was responsible for four of those points, with Jeffery converting a conventional three-point play for the others.
In the final 7 minutes, the Buffs led by as many as 15 - 67-52 in the final half minute - and the Aztecs never got closer than eight points.
"We stayed together," Lappe said. "We knew they would make a run midway through the second half (but) I loved how we responded."
The win against a quality opponent "shows us a good team and what we need to beat a good team, what we need to work on in practice, what level we have to play at game in and game out."
The Buffs' next opportunity comes Wednesday against Wyoming (7 p.m., Coors Events Center).