BOULDER – Ready or not, the Pac-12 Conference schedule is fast approaching – and the Colorado Buffaloes appear ready.
No. 21 CU was perfect at the free throw line – the Buffs set a school record by hitting all 26 of their attempts – imperfect at times elsewhere, but all-in-all good enough on Saturday night to march past Georgia 84-70 at the Coors Events Center.
“I told our team in the locker room, this is a good win against a quality SEC opponent,” said Buffs coach Tad Boyle. “These guys are going to win a lot of games in the SEC. They are a talented group, but this is a time for us to exhale for a day.”
Then the heavy breathing will commence and not slow until March. The Buffs open Pac-12 play on Thursday (8 p.m.) against Oregon State at the CEC, then host Oregon on Sunday, Jan. 5 (3 p.m.). Boyle will give his team Sunday off, then call the Buffs back on Monday morning to start preparations for the Beavers.
Rebounding from a 78-73 loss to No. 7 Oklahoma State in Las Vegas that snapped a 10-game winning streak, CU finished its non-conference schedule 11-2 and matched its best start in 34 years.
“To be 11-2 with the caliber of schedule that we played says a lot about this group, and we’ve got a lot of basketball ahead of us,” Boyle said. “Season number one is over with, our nonconference portion is done, and now we are going into an 18-game marathon of the Pac-12. Our league is very good, and we’re going to have to be ready mentally, physically, emotionally, spiritually, the whole nine yards. We’re excited about it, and I’m proud of what our guys did tonight.”
The individual pride of his players, said Boyle, was responsible for the 26 consecutive free throws, which broke the former school mark of 14-for-14 set in 1980 against Nebraska. The Pac-12 record is 28-for-28 by Washington State (vs. Oregon, 2009), the NCAA record is 34-for-34 (three teams).
Boyle was reminded during the game by assistant coach Jean Prioleau that the Buffs had not missed a foul shot. “I asked him not to speak about it again,” Boyle said. “Coach (Rodney) Billups came up a few minutes later and said it on my right. I asked him not to talk about it again. Obviously, I’m proud of what the team did at the line, but I don’t talk about it when we miss them, and I’m not going to talk about it when we make them.”
Boyle called free throw shooting “a personal thing, an individual thing, and I want our guys to take individual pride, and when they do that, nights like this are fun when you don’t miss any. I don’t want to discount it, but I don’t want to be a hypocrite about it, pat the guys on the back when they do and call them out when they don’t. It’s an individual thing, but I was proud of them. It’s such a mental thing, and I want our guys relaxed. I want them confident.”
He called setting the school record “nice,” but added, “In the big picture of things, there might be some games where we’re going to want some of those back. That’s just basketball.”
Post Josh Scott hit all eight of his free throws on the way to 14 points – he also grabbed 13 rebounds – and guard Spencer Dinwiddie was perfect on his seven foul shots in contributing 17 points. They were among five Buffs in double figures, topped by guard Askia Booker’s 19 – 12 of them in the second half. Also in double digits were forwards Wesley Gordon (10) and Xavier Johnson (13).
Johnson scored 11 of his total in the first half when he hit his first three 3-point attempts, enabling the Buffs to go ahead 11-6 and never look back. Leading by as many as 18 points in the first half, the Buffs allowed the Bulldogs (6-5) to close to within eight with 10 minutes to play. But CU clamped down defensively, allowed Georgia to get no closer and left the CEC with its 53rd home win (seven losses) under Boyle.
“It was good just being able to have Spencer give me the ball for open jump shots, and I was able to knock them down,” said Johnson, who managed only three points in last weekend’s loss. “It’s always easier to shoot at a court you’ve been shooting on for two years. So, it was good. I enjoyed it.”
Georgia had four players in double figures, led by Nemana Djurisic and Kenny Gaines with 12 each.
Boyle undoubtedly will want his defense tightened by Thursday. The Bulldogs shot 51.9 percent (14-of-27) in the second half and finished at 50 percent from the field for the game (28-of-56). But the Buffs shot 51 percent for the game (25-of-49) and outrebounded the Dawgs 34-22.
Boyle credited Georgia for its marksmanship but added, “I just feel like defensively, we have to get better. There’s going to be nights in Pac-12 conference play where we don’t shoot 51 percent, and maybe we don’t outrebound the opponent by double digits. Those are the nights that we are going to have to rely on our defense, and it’s not good enough right now. Bottom line. Our defense is not good enough for Pac-12 level play if we want to compete for a championship. It has to get better . . . we have a short time to get that there.”
The Buffs led 46-35 at intermission, scoring their most points of the season in an opening half. The Bulldogs never led and managed only one early tie (3-3) before falling behind by as many as 18 twice before the break.
Johnson led a 3-point flurry, connecting on his first three attempts from behind the arc before his fourth attempt from downtown rimmed out. But he wasn’t the only Buff who was dialed in from long distance; after Dinwiddie and Jaron Hopkins added treys of their own, CU had hit five of six 3-point attempts and led 21-15. The Buffs finished 8-of-20 from behind the arc.
With Georgia moving in and out of a zone defense, CU’s early barrage of treys no doubt was welcome. But the Buffs relied on getting to the rim and the foul line in a 15-3 run that opened a 36-20 lead with 5:25 left in the half. Booker scored all seven of his first-half points during that stretch.
Booker hit seven of his 12 field goal attempts (two of four from 3-point range), with his 19 points tying a season high. He also had a game-best four assists.
Boyle said Booker “was feeling it tonight. He was very efficient and he took good shots. I thought he was terrific . . . we’ll take seven-for-twelve from Askia every night. I thought his floor game was good. You could tell he was dialed in.”
With their 11-point halftime lead, if the Buffs could stay interested and maintain their intensity the second half offered little hope of a comeback for the SEC visitors. For the most part, CU did both – until Georgia finally cut its deficit to single digits (57-49) on a 3-pointer by Brandon Morris at the 10-minute mark.
But the Buffs quickly righted themselves with a 7-0 run and shot back ahead by 15 (66-49) on a conventional three-point play by Booker with 8:33 remaining. CU regained its 18-point advantage in the final 2 minutes and sent the CEC crowd of 10,848 home happy – and anxiously awaiting Pac-12 play.
The Buffs believe they are ready. “I mean, we’re 11-2,” Scott said. “We’ve played really good teams, and had a really good out of conference schedule. We’re feeling pretty confident going into Pac-12 play. We’re going in trying to win it. So, it’s good.”