FORT COLLINS – Spencer Dinwiddie has little difficulty believing in himself or his game. His lone hang-up – and it’s receding by the day, maybe by the hour – is knowing when to turn it up and take over.
Just past the halfway mark of Tuesday’s first half in frenetic Moby Arena, Dinwiddie sensed he should be doing both. So he did. Getting help in a second-half stretch run from freshman Jaron Hopkins, Dinwiddie pushed Colorado past rival Colorado State 67-62 for the Buffs eighth consecutive win.
“I’m proud of our guys and Spencer was the big difference,” CU coach Tad Boyle said. “He was the best player on the floor and it wasn’t even close.”
In passing 1,000 points for his career, Dinwiddie finished with a game-best 28 – one off a career-high set in last season’s win against CSU in Boulder. But Tuesday night’s production might have been more impressive; Dinwiddie scored 19 of his total in the second half as the Buffs were trying to overcome themselves, hit seven of seven second-half free throws (he was 11-of-11 for the night), and scored seven of CU’s final nine points.
The 6-6 junior also capably defended CSU’s Daniel Bejarano, who surpassed his 13.6 average with 15 points but hit only four of 15 from the field. Redshirt freshman Wes Gordon held CSU’s leading scorer, J.J. Avila (19.0), to 16 points, and like Bejarano, Avila didn’t do much that wasn’t contested by the 6-9 Gordon. Avila needed 19 attempts to make his four field goals.
Boyle called Gordon’s defense “terrific” and said the Buffs “battled . . . we made plays when we had to make plays and got stops when we had to get stops. It wasn’t a pretty game offensively when you go three for 19 from three (point range). I mean it’s tough – and there were some good looks.”
Two of CU’s three treys came from Hopkins, who scored eight straight points – a steal/stuff, two consecutive threes – in the second half when the Buffs were rallying from a five-point deficit. He finished with 10 points, and teammate Askia Booker added 12 – including a pair of free throws with three seconds to play that sealed CU’s first win at Moby Arena since Dec. 22, 2007.
Boyle called Hopkins’ steal and slam “the biggest play of the game.” And while Hopkins wouldn’t go that far, he did concur, “It was pretty big. I read the play; I’m pretty good at reading the plays.”
Tuesday night’s two-for-two trey performance followed a three-for-three three-point Saturday at Air Force. “Shooting is all about confidence,” Boyle said. “You’ve got to feel like you’re going to make it and he’s feeling it right now.”
The Buffs handed the Rams their first home loss this season and now have beaten all three Front Range schools – CSU, Air Force, Wyoming – in the same season. That hadn’t happened in six previous tries.
“We want and expect to be the most dominant team in the region,” Boyle said. “But you can’t do it by talking about it; you’ve got to go out and do it.”
The game’s first 10 minutes hardly qualified as an offensive clinic . . . maybe clinically dead was a better fit. At the 7:38 mark the Buffs and Rams had combined to make seven of their 31 field goal attempts, with 14 turnovers between them (seven each).
CU finally cracked the ugly code and took a two-point lead (14-12) on a pair of Dinwiddie free throws – that’s when he sensed he should be taking over – and proceeded on a 7-0 run to take its largest lead of the half (19-12) with 7 minutes before intermission. After his pair of foul shots, Dinwiddie added a three-pointer and Xavier Talton hit a jumper to get the Buffs to 19.
“We weren’t scoring very well,” Dinwiddie said. “We had 12 points with about eight minutes to go (in the first half). That’s when I decided to get more aggressive. If we had been up 20 and Josh (Scott) was working and ‘Ski’ was working, you might have seen another ten-point, five-assist type game. When that’s not happening it’s my job to get more aggressive . . . I still am trying to get guys open shots, but if they’re not falling then it’s my job to score.”
And that awareness is what Boyle says makes Dinwiddie special. He had told Dinwiddie on Monday that being more aggressive would be necessary in Moby, adding, “Keep your mouth shut before the game, let your play do the talking . . . he’s smart; he’s going to do whatever this team needs him to do to help win games. It’s awful nice to have a point guard like that.”
Dinwiddie still has flashes of guilt about not being aggressive early enough in the Buffs’ only loss – 72-60 against Baylor in the season opener. “I waited too late in the Baylor game,” he said. “That’s why that loss is still really hard for me and I feel like I let the team down.”
Although his take-over in Tuesday night’s first half got the Buffs (kind of) untracked offensively, the Rams led 34-30 at the break. CU’s nine first-half turnovers were a season-high, with CSU at the same number. The Buffs committed only five more in the second half, but the Rams matched their first-half total and had 18 for the game, leading to 18 Buffs points.
The pace – and the efficiency – smoothed out in the opening minutes of the second half. After CSU extended its lead to six on two occasions, CU rallied behind Dinwiddie and Booker, outscoring the Rams 10-4 to knot the score at 40-40 on a Dinwiddie layup with 16:50 to play. Maybe ugly was done: The Buffs opened the half by hitting five of their first seven field goal attempts.
When Dinwiddie converted two free throws, CU was back in front, 42-40. But ugly wasn’t done: Over the next 31/2 minutes, the Buffs missed six shots until Scott scored on a put-back for a 44-44 tie. The rivals stayed within two or four points of each other until Bejarano’s triple from the left wing pushed the Rams up 51-46 with 10:56 remaining.
The Buffs pulled to within 53-52 on Hopkins’ steal and stuff at the 7:12 mark. Just under 4 minutes later, Hopkins answered again, draining a trey from the right corner to tie the score at 55-55. It was only CU’s second make from behind the arc in 18 attempts, but Hopkins was feeling it.
He canned his second straight trey (and his eighth straight point) to put CU up 58-57, then fed Dinwiddie for a layup and a subsequent three-point play for a 61-58 Buffs lead with 2:54 showing. Dinwiddie drove the lane for another layup (63-58) and CU appeared to be in control.
But the Rams weren’t rolling. Carlton Hurst hit a put-back (63-60) and Joe DiCiman went to the free throw line after Xavier Johnson fouled out and hit one of two free throws (63-61). The Buffs couldn’t control DiCiman’s miss, and Avila was fouled by Scott with 24.8 seconds to play.
Avila hit one of two free throws (63-62) and CU again put the game in Dinwiddie’s hands. With 14.3 seconds left, he hit both ends of a one-and-one (65-62), leaving CSU desperate but not done.
Avila tried a straight away trey that flirted with the net, but Booker controlled the air ball, was fouled on his rush downcourt and hit two free throws to seal it. After Booker hit his first free throw, Dinwiddie walked toward one CSU student section talking to them more than himself.
“I was in a very, very, very polite manner going to the student section that was heckling me constantly during the game and telling them to please be quiet,” he said. “We just won the ball game and now they have nothing to say to me.”
The Rams had the Buffs’ full attention, and Hopkins said he and his fellow freshmen were well-prepped for the Moby madness: “Beau Gamble talked a lot about how it’s going to be crazy and it’s our first real away game. He was right on the money. It was a tough atmosphere to play in and I look forward to playing in more atmospheres like that.”
Although not as hostile, the atmosphere will be even more raucous at the Coors Events Center on Saturday when No. 6 Kansas visits (1:20 p.m., ESPN2). The game, Dinwiddie understated, “is big. It’s about us taking that next step. We believe inside the locker room we’re top 25 but we haven’t proved it. That game is kind of what can put a stamp on our season.”
“It’s really big for us,” added Hopkins. “That’s a game the coaches are looking forward to and we’re looking forward to it as players, too. It’s really big for us and our confidence is pretty high.”