BOULDER - After their defensive intensity went missing in the second of two Pac-12 Conference road losses last weekend, the Colorado Buffaloes went on a recovery mission Thursday night. Mission accomplished. CU clamped down on Arizona State early and thoroughly, leaving the Coors Events Center with a 69-54 Pac-12 win.
"Our focus tonight was terrific . . . I felt we were there mentally for the whole 40 minutes," said CU coach Tad Boyle, who made a special trip to the scorer's table after the game and publicly thanked a full student section - "You're the heartbeat of this arena" - for returning to spring semester classes on Tuesday and immediately putting Buffs hoops on their calendars.
And you'd better believe Boyle wants them all back on Saturday for Arizona's visit (4 p.m., ROOT Sports). Apologies to the deliberate, grind-it-out Sun Devils, but the more athletic, up-tempo Wildcats will offer an altogether different challenge.
Boyle termed Saturday "a marquee game" whose style should better suit the Buffs than what the Sun Devils presented them. Not that CU couldn't handle it . . . ASU was forced into missing six of its first seven shots and by halftime had scored only 15 points - the Sun Devils' lowest first-half total since they managed 13 on Feb. 25, 2006 against Arizona.
Limiting ASU to half a dozen first-half field goals (6-of-18, 33.3 percent), CU led 31-15 at the break. It marked the fifth time this season the Buffs have led an opponent by 15 or more points at intermission.
"It was really big, especially coming from our second half at Stanford when we really didn't defend that well," CU senior Austin Dufault said. "We wanted to come back (home) and just get back to what we do and the things that we focus on. I think we did a good job in the first half."
ASU coach Herb Sendek agreed. Sendek, who was whistled for back-to-back technical fouls and ejected with 4:12 to play, called CU "the more aggressive, physical team from the get-go."
CU outrebounded ASU 34-22 and converted the visitors' 14 turnovers into 25 points. Sendek's team obviously was handicapped by the loss of top scorer Trent Lockett (13.9 average). He suffered an ankle sprain in ASU's 76-66 home win against Oregon State last weekend.
But Lockett's presence might not have mattered, given how the Buffs smothered the Sun Devils in the first 20 minutes. "I thought we hit a little bit of a lull in the first half - which we are capable of . . .," Boyle said. "But the good is that our defense kind of stemmed the tide and we were able to go into halftime with a good lead."
Offensively, CU (12-6, 4-2) was efficient against ASU's matchup zone, passing crisply inside and outscoring the visitors 36-22 in the paint (18-8 in the first half). Boyle said that particular defense is difficult to prepare for because it's rare, and he was delighted the visit by ASU (6-12, 2-4) preceded Arizona's.
"I'm so thankful to be able to play ASU on front end, because of their matchup zone and flex offense," he said. "Arizona plays more like us than Arizona State does."
Senior Carlon Brown, CU's leading scorer (13.8), left the game with just under 5 minutes to play having made only two free throws. But balanced scoring from his teammates picked him up; junior Andre Roberson collected another double-double (12 points, 10 rebounds), with freshman Spencer Dinwiddie adding 12 points and Dufault and freshman Askia Booker 11 each.
Boyle said ASU's zone appeared to disrupt Brown's rhythm, but he was pleased that Brown and his teammates didn't try to force themselves into the offense. "We executed our game plan," Boyle said. "The matchup zone is something you don't see every day . . . our guys got the ball inside; we had great ball movement."
The Buffs led by as many as 19 points (29-10) in the first 20 minutes. They pulled away from an early 3-3 tie with a 16-1 run that quickly turned the night in their favor. CU got eight first-half points - his total for the night - on a perfect first-half shooting performance from Nate Tomlinson. The senior guard hit all three of his field goal attempts (two three-pointers) and both of his free throw tries. He had scored three points in the Buffs' pair of road losses last weekend.
In the second half, CU pushed its advantage to 45-25 on a layup by Shane Harris-Tunks with 11:32 remaining. The Sun Devils never got closer than 14 points thereafter, and after Sendek's ejection the Buffs matched their biggest lead of the night by going up 63-43.
But with Sendek out of sight and making his way toward the locker room, Dufault's short hook in front of the basket sent CU ahead 65-43 and many fans heading elsewhere. Boyle cleared his bench with 2:05 remaining and the Buffs ahead 68-43.
Back-to-back road losses might have pushed the Buffs out of the conference lead, but they didn't darken Boyle's view of his team or cause him to question its confidence.
"I'm not worried about confidence with this team; they're a resilient group of guys who believe in each other," he said. "It'll take more than two losses to two good teams . . . it was important that we played well (Thursday night) and got our mojo back."
It's back - and it needs to stick around for Saturday.
Cain Leaves Team Indefinitely
Freshman forward Damiene Cain has left the team for personal reasons. Boyle said of Cain's departure: "Due to some personal issues, Damiene Cain will not be involved with Colorado Basketball for an indefinite period of time. Damiene has our full support. His health and happiness are our primary concern."