BOULDER – No way for Colorado to beat towering, talented Kansas without 6-9 forward Wes Gordon?
No way (except maybe at gunpoint) that CU coach Tad Boyle strays from man-to-man defense and utilizes a 2-3 zone?
No way Coors Events Center matinee idol Ben Mills contributes meaningful first-half minutes against a team like the Jayhawks?
No way CU shoots nearly as frigid as the Boulder weather – 41.1 percent from the field and 59.5 percent from the foul line – and survives?
And no way the up, down, often kicked-around Askia Booker delivers the biggest shot of his life?
Way – and way, way past that.
It was CU 75, No. 6 KU 72 at the sold-out, geeked-out CEC on Saturday afternoon. The Buffs (9-1) won their ninth consecutive game for the first time since the 2005-06 season and slapped down a top 10 team for the first time since last Valentine’s Day when they blew away (without a kiss) No. 9 Arizona 71-58.
But that win won’t hold a holiday candle to this one. Christmas morning in the Rocky Mountains might not be able to match this – at least not for Boyle, his Buffs basketball program and an adoring CU fan base.
Booker hit three-pointers to close out each half, but it was his 30-footer at the final buzzer that he, his teammates and the crowd of 11,113 will remember for . . . maybe forever.
It had been a decade – or since the 2002-03 season – and 19 games, most of them in another conference, since CU defeated KU, and it was Boyle’s first win as a head coach in five tries against his alma mater. The Jayhawks still lead the series 123-40, but as for that 40th Buffs win . . .
“I’m not quite sure what to say after that one . . . it’s hard to put in historical perspective,” Boyle said about half an hour after CU students had cleared the CEC court and the building had stopped shuddering. “It was a hump game for our basketball program, considering what they did to us last year at Allen Field House and the amount of talent they have on their team.”
“Last year” was a 90-54 beat down in Lawrence, and if Booker and the Buffs said it didn’t motivate them, there will be switches and ashes in their stockings in about three weeks.
CU’s list of Saturday heroes starts with the 6-1 junior guard from Los Angeles but goes upward to the 7-0 Mills, who means every bit as much to his teammates as the Buffs logo. Then add Spencer Dinwiddie (15 points, seven assists), Xavier Johnson (14 points, six rebounds, three steals), Josh Scott (14 points, four boards, two assists) and nearly every other CU player who suited up.
But it was Booker’s final trey that shot down the Jayhawks and shut down their fans. With 3 seconds to play and the score tied at 72-72 after KU had erased a nine-point CU lead, Booker got a pressurized inbounds pass from Johnson at the right sidecourt, went three dribbles past halfcourt and pulled up for his jumper heard 'round the Rockies and no doubt deep into the Heartland.
The ball found the net as time expired and Booker, who tied Dinwiddie with a team-best 15 points, found his place in CU hoops history. Was it the biggest shot of his career?
“Without a doubt . . . unless I win an NBA championship, that’s it,” he said. “I’m not sure I ever thought that would happen. At the same time, I think it’s a testament to Coach Boyle and how we go through our late clock plays in practice. The reason he does that is for nights like this.
“Thankfully, I came out and hit that shot. It felt great when it left my hand. I told the media after the game, I was actually in a straight line, which is great for a shooter. You don’t want to be fading away to the left or the right or backwards. I was going straight for the basket. My momentum held my form up and it went right in.”
Said Boyle: “When he let it go I knew it was in . . . it was money.”
Kansas (6-2) might have believed it would cash in inside with the absence of Gordon, who had missed practice since CU’s Tuesday night win at Colorado State due to illness/injury. The Jayhawks usually thrive inside with 7-0 Joel Embiid, 6-9 Tarik Black and 6-8 Perry Ellis, and they did outrebound the Buffs 33-32 and got 10 points each from Embiid and Ellis.
KU didn’t lose much of its power inside, outscoring CU 42-26 in the paint. The Jayhawks also got 22 bench points to the Buffs’ 14, but CU converted 14 KU turnovers into 24 points. The Buffs committed eight turnovers – a monstrous improvement from last season in Lawrence when CU had 12 by halftime and 18 by game’s end.
In the rematch, with Gordon watching from the bench in street clothes, Boyle knew a step up was needed from his frontcourt players such as the 6-7 Johnson, the 6-10 Scott and reserves such as Mills, who contributed eight of his 10 minutes and all of his four points in the first half. Mills also snatched three rebounds.
“It was so much fun,” Mills said. “This is something you dream of as a kid, a packed house at the Coors Events Center and the fans going nuts. To come in and play well in front of the fans and put on a show for them was great.”
Trailing by as many nine twice in the first 20 minutes, the Buffs finally caught the Jayhawks with a 14-4 run and took their first lead (26-25) on a layup from the left side by Mills with 4:21 left before intermission. It was Mills’ second straight basket, following a pump fake that got Embiid in the air and resulted in a soft, short jumper.
The CEC crowd roared with both of Mills’ baskets – and more of the blissful noise for the Buffs was coming.
Said Booker of Mills: “This guy comes to practice every day and works his butt off. Although he may not play as much as he wants or as much as he should, when his number was called, he was ready. Without him, we wouldn’t have won the game.”
And Boyle said the game wouldn’t have been won if he hadn’t “swallowed my pride,” pulled the Buffs out of his favored man-to-man and stationed them in a 2-3 zone. Given Gordon’s day-to-day status and KU’s inside power, Boyle said he had no choice: “If they would have made some shots against it in the first half early I probably would have gotten out of it, because I’m not committed to it. But, they didn’t, they struggled with it, and so we stayed with it. Second half we tried to flash it and keep them off balance a little bit. It’s hard sometimes man to man once they get in a rhythm to stop them, and I think the zone helped keep them off balance.”
Also, the Jayhawks came to Boulder shooting 30.7 percent from three-point range, and part of Boyle’s strategy was to make them jump shooters rather than layup and put-back artists. KU finished at 52.9 percent from the field (25 percent from beyond the arc) and Boyle conceded on first glance at the stat sheet, “I wonder how we won . . . but our guys’ resiliency and guts won out. I’m just glad we had the ball at the end; they were scoring pretty quick, pretty easily at the end.”
The Buffs endured their worst free-throw shooting of the season in the first half, hitting only 11 of 19 and finishing 22-for-37. In the final 1:49, Dinwiddie hit five of six and Booker one of two – his make coming with 12.8 seconds to play. KU called timeout with 11 seconds left to reset, and Ellis tied it at 72-72 with a layup.
The Jayhawks had rallied from nine down after the Buffs went up 53-44 on one of two free throws by Tre’Shaun Fletcher and a steal and stuff by the freshman on the next KU possession. But over the next 2 minutes, a 7-0 Jayhawks run cut their deficit to 53-51 and it was Boyle’s turn to call a timeout with just over 9 minutes to play. When the Buffs didn’t score, super KU freshman Andrew Wiggins (22 points) sent KU’s run to 9-0, tying the game at 53-53 with a layup at the 8:38 mark.
CU led by as many as six points twice in the final 3:36, the first six-point lead (63-57) coming on a Booker trey from the right corner. That shot, said Booker, “was great for me, but at the same time that play was initially for Spencer. I think they expected that so they left me open . . . it let me make the play.”
But the Jayhawks weren’t waving a white towel. They roared back behind a trey and two-pointer by Naadir Tharpe, a Wiggins layup and an Ellis tip to close to 70-68. With 12.8 seconds showing, Dinwiddie caught Wiggins’ elbow on a three-point attempt, and Wiggins hit two of three free throws to pull KU to within 71-70.
Dinwiddie made one of two foul shots – he finished eight-for-10 from the line – to increase the Buffs’ lead to 72-70. But Ellis’ layup tied the score and set the stage for Booker’s buzzer beater and the CU students storming the court.
Boyle said Booker, who was just five of 24 from three-point range in the first nine games but three-for-six Saturday, “is important to us, he’s our emotional leader. He can’t let his play affect his leadership on the court and it’s hard, it’s hard when you’re a shooter and you’re not shooting it well . . . (but) the capability’s there. If I didn’t see it in practice and he’s shooting that percentage (20.8 percent on three’s through nine games), then I’m the dumbest coach in America to be playing him.”
Turns out Boyle isn’t close to dumb or dumber. “Ski” Booker chiseled out his place in Buffs history and KU fans filed numbly out of the CEC without chanting “Rock Chalk Jayhawk.”
Said Boyle: “’Ski’ made an unbelievable play and we’re going to take it and not look back. Our crowd was great; to me it was a great day for college basketball in the state of Colorado and I’m really proud of our guys.”