BOULDER - Protecting a second-half lead wasn't a problem on Saturday for the Colorado Buffaloes. Their dilemma this time was overcoming a 13-point second-half deficit - and they nearly did it.
Deep and talented UCLA led by a point at halftime, revved it up in the second half, then had to desperately hold on to beat CU 78-75 and deal the Buffs their first loss of the season at the Coors Events Center.
CU closed to within a point (76-75) on Spencer Dinwiddie's layup, but UCLA's Jordan Adams sank a pair of free throws with 7.9 seconds to play to give the Bruins their final lead. A three-point attempt from the left corner by Askia Booker bounced off the rim at the buzzer.
CU coach Tad Boyle said his team got the shot it wanted: "We drew that play up and got 'Ski' a wide-open three in the corner . . . we got the shots we wanted offensively, we really did what we set out to do in the last two or three minutes. But we didn't get a stop when we needed to."
When Booker's shot didn't go in, it left the Buffs 8-1 this season at the CEC and 39-5 at home in 21/2 seasons under Boyle. CU fell to 11-5 overall and 1-3 in the Pac-12 Conference while UCLA, winning its ninth straight game, improved to 14-3 and stayed unbeaten (4-0) in conference play.
Dinwiddie led CU with 23 points - 15 in the second half - while Booker and Josh Scott added 18 each. Scott also had nine rebounds. UCLA's Travis Wear matched Dinwiddie's point total and stepped up with clutch baskets when the Buffs were making their comeback. Adams added 18 points, with Shabazz Muhammad contributing 14 and Kyle Anderson 12 for UCLA.
Boyle called the loss "very disappointing, frustrating for our team and program . . . the margin for error is so thin in those games (and) our team is not where we need to be. It's frustrating when you know opportunities are there and we don't take advantage."
But the Bruins played a large part in Saturday's loss, and Boyle credited them for "making plays and free throws down the stretch." Specifically, they hit eight of 11 in the final 61 seconds. And a pair of clutch field goals by Travis Wear also helped keep the Buffs at bay.
"He was terrific down the stretch," Boyle said of the 6-10 Wear, who was 11-of-17 from the field. Added Dinwiddie: "(Wear) was the best player on the floor. He shot over 50 percent . . . give him a lot of credit. Some of our guys are not used to guarding a big guy outside like that."
The Buffs, said Boyle, "played hard and competed, but we have to be more consistent from start to finish against good teams." He drew on a quote from his former college coach at Kansas, Larry Brown: "Coming back is easy; coming back and winning is hard."
For matchup purposes with the bigger Bruins, Boyle started freshman forward Xavier Johnson in place of senior Sabatino Chen for the second time this season. The 6-6 Johnson finished with eight points - seven in the first half - in 22 minutes.
The Buffs led by as many four points in the first half, but trailed by one (35-34) at intermission. It was only the second time this season that CU has trailed at halftime - the first being in early December at Kansas. And that trip didn't turn out so well for the Buffs.
The Bruins' biggest first-half lead was three on three occasions, with those meager advantages telling the story of an opening 20 minutes played at a controlled pace by both teams. When running was to be done, it was usually UCLA doing it; the Bruins had 10 fast break points to the Buffs' four.
Neither team had a player in double figures in the opening half, and CU's Andre Roberson didn't get his first field goal until nearly 15 minutes in. He finished the half with four points and got one more in the second half. But he collected a game-high 12 rebounds.
CU fell well short of holding UCLA to 40 percent from the field. The Bruins hit 31 of their 60 field goal attempts (51.7 percent) while the Buffs finished at 25-for-57 (43.9 percent). CU won the board battle 34-32 and was better at the free throw line, hitting 20-of-27 - an upgrade from their 14-of-26 in the previous win against USC.
"But if we make three more, it might be a tie game," Booker said. "We have to get better there."
Booker said his futile trey at the buzzer "felt good" when it left his hand. After releasing the shot, he wound up flat on his back. Did he think he was fouled? "It doesn't matter now, the game's over," he said.
UCLA scored the second half's first five points on a layup by Travis Wear and a three-pointer by Muhammad, opening a six-point (40-34) lead and prompting a timeout by Boyle with 18:39 to play.
The Buffs had an answer - two of them. Treys by Booker and Dinwiddie tied the score at 42-42 with 16:09 remaining. But over the next 3 minutes, the Bruins outscored the Buffs 8-1 to go up by 50-43 - UCLA's largest lead to that point.
It grew to 13 (58-45) just over 3 minutes later as the Buffs were held without a field goal during that nearly 6-minute span, getting only a pair of free throws from Dinwiddie. Meanwhile, Jordan capped the Bruins' 14-3 run with a four-point play to make it 58-45 with 9:49 left.
CU got as close as 61-55 on a pair of free throws by Scott with 5:25 remaining, then crept to within five on two occasions in the final 2:15 on baskets by Dinwiddie and Scott. And possession by possession, the Buffs kept coming, giving themselves the chance to tie on Booker's near-miss at the buzzer.
"'Ski' is one of our best clutch shooters," said Dinwiddie. "We're not at all disappointed in getting that shot."
Added Booker: "We shouldn't have let it get to that point . . . I'm happy with way fought, that gave us a chance to tie and go to overtime."
In its three previous Pac-12 games, CU squandered double-digit leads and lost two of the three games. On Saturday, Dinwiddie said he didn't believe the Buffs lacked a sense of urgency, "We just hit these lulls on the offensive and defensive ends. Even if it happens on the offensive end, we can't let it happen on the defensive end . . . we have to stay on pace and execute our plan."
Doing it only becomes tougher. If the Buffs are to climb to .500 in the Pac-12, they must do it on the road. They travel to Washington (Wednesday, 9:30 p.m. MST) and Washington State (Saturday, 8 p.m. MST) next week.