LOS ANGELES -
Destiny shows up in strange places and works in strange ways. Sometimes it doesn't show up at all, other times you just know it's there.
So it was Saturday at the Staples Center for the finals of the Pac-12 Conference's inaugural tournament. Colorado might not have been destined to defeat Arizona, but try convincing Tad Boyle of that. And good luck.
Boyle's first CU basketball team opened the 2010-11 season believing it had more than a decent shot to land in the NCAA Tournament, then thought it had solidified a berth by advancing to the semifinals of the Big 12 Conference postseason tourney.
Boyle felt so strongly about the Buffaloes' chance to dance that he threw a Selection Sunday house party, inviting CU coaches, players, administrators, boosters and media to partake in what would have been the school's first NCAA invitation since 2003.
The celebration became a wake. The Selection Committee passed on the Buffs, leaving Boyle and his players crestfallen. A scar remains; and if you couldn't see the evidence Saturday afternoon after CU had held off Arizona 53-51 to win the Pac-12 tournament and the accompanying NCAA berth, well, you weren't paying attention.
Eyes misty in a post-game media conference as he described it, Boyle called that Sunday last March "one of the hardest days" of his life, with the closest competition being telling his Northern Colorado players he was leaving season before last to come to CU.
The snub was tough enough, but the devastation he felt for last season's departing players - seniors Cory Higgins, Levi Knutson, Marcus Relphorde, Javon Coney and Trent Beckley; early NBA draftee Alec Burks - was tougher. The despair stuck with Boyle like little else has in his life, and it stayed with him for nearly a year, all the way into the wee hours of Saturday morning.
"We got shut out," Boyle repeated Saturday afternoon.
About 1:30 a.m., he texted those six players, telling them that this season's team was dedicating Saturday's Pac-12 championship game to them. "For me, as a coach, (knowing) those guys will never have that opportunity again is what inspired me," Boyle said. "To push these guys every day in practice, I get as much inspiration from our players, probably more, than they get from me."
The seniors on Boyle's second CU team - Austin Dufault, Nate Tomlinson, Carlon Brown, Trey Eckloff - didn't need much of a reminder of how low the mood was last Selection Sunday.
"It was definitely a heartbreak," Brown said. "I still have the picture on my phone to remind me, even though I didn't contribute in minutes played last year. I still understand how it felt."
"There have been so many ups and downs," Dufault added about a four-year CU career that took an upturn in the final two. "But I've just treasured every moment at CU . . . the tough ones have only made me a better person, along with my teammates. We couldn't have gotten to this point without going through ups and downs."
The Buffs had their share of those Saturday, building a 12-point second-half lead then surviving an almost 9-minute span to end the game in which they got one field goal - albeit a spectacular final flush by Brown - and one free throw.
Arizona closed to within two (53-51) and had possession with just over 14 ticks remaining. But CU's defense (primarily Nate Tomlinson) shifted to lock down mode and Wildcats guard Kyle Fogg's last look - it was from the deep left wing with 1.4 seconds left - was nowhere near what 'Zona wanted.
That the Buffs escaped with a solid defensive stop was fitting, said Boyle: "You rely on your defense, you rely on your rebounding. We beat this Arizona team in Boulder the same way - on a stop. It's appropriate that (Saturday's game) ended that way. It shouldn't have been that close, but our guys did what they had to do. Again, it just shows the perseverance."
Perseverance also was shown in what CU accomplished - taking four games in four days - to win the first Pac-12 championship. Fatigue can be a factor in that kind of stretch, but Boyle said if anyone was to blame for the Buffs not having a first-day bye, it was themselves.
"If we had taken care of business against Oregon State late in the regular season, we wouldn't have had a fourth game in a row," he said, referring to that ugly loss in Corvallis costing CU a No. 4 seed. "But again, it was meant to be. These guys took it on as a challenge. We came here on a mission . . . fatigue was a factor, but it was a factor for both teams."
For four games here, Boyle and the Buffs received a tangible lift from the 50 "C-Unit" students who earned their passage to L.A., with athletic director Mike Bohn picking up the tab. Other schools and Pac-12 administrators - including commissioner Larry Scott - were impressed, with Scott telling members of the Buffs traveling party that CU had done something innovative and had "raised the bar" for other Pac-12 schools in future conference tournaments.
Boyle again saluted Bohn for his willingness to bring the students, calling him "as big a part of this win as anybody at our university. We brought him in the locker room after the game because I wouldn't be the coach at Colorado if it wasn't for Mike Bohn . . . I'm just so thankful that those 50 kids could come here and experience this with us."
And what an experience it turned out to be. In CU men's basketball, cutting down the nets, accepting trophies, donning title ball caps and posing for team pictures isn't done every season . . . even every decade.
But late Saturday afternoon at the Staples Center was a time to savor all that. Destiny paid the Buffs a visit. Their coach would have been disappointed if she didn't show. He will throw a Selection Sunday party this year and there will be no nasty surprises.