BOULDER – It was the kind of game that Tad Boyle had challenged his team to win – down-and-dirty, back-and-forth, blink-and-you’re-done.
Boyle’s Colorado Buffaloes didn’t blink. Never considered it either. Down 12 points in the second half, the Buffs caught Utah, got caught by a late Utes 3-pointer, then mustered enough want-to to win 79-75 in overtime Saturday at the Coors Events Center.
“Holy cow,” Boyle said afterwards. “We needed that one bad and our guys responded . . . because of what we’ve been through, it doesn’t matter who you are, you need to win your games at home and hold serve. We dropped one already (to UCLA) we’d love to have back. But it doesn’t work that way so this was a big game for us.”
Maybe bigger than big; monstrous wouldn’t be an exaggeration.
Losers in four of their previous five games without Spencer Dinwiddie and Tre’Shaun Fletcher, the Buffs needed step-up performances from stand-in players and command performances from their veterans. Finally, the afternoon came together on both fronts.
CU (16-6 overall, 5-4 Pac-12) had five players in double figures – four of them starters and two of those (Xavier Johnson, Josh Scott) finishing with double-doubles. Scott scored a game-high 20 points and tied Johnson, who scored 11, with a game-best 10 rebounds. Forward Wesley Gordon added 12 points and six rebounds as the Buffs blasted the Utes on the boards, 42-24.
CU was no less productive in the backcourt, with guards Askia Booker and Xavier Talton combining for 32 points. Booker’s stat line was near staggering: 18 points, eight rebounds, seven of the Buffs’ 13 assists, 7-of-10 from the free throw line and one steal.
But it was Talton who might have been the Buffs’ biggest force. Scoring a career-high 14 points, the sophomore from Sterling hit back-to-back 3-pointers during a 14-2 second-half run that brought CU back from its 12-point deficit. He also opened the OT scoring with another trey – he was four-of-five from beyond the arc – as the Buffs finally put away the Utes (14-7, 3-6).
Talton, who with an angry cut under his left eye looked as if he’d gone 10 rounds in the ring rather than 22 minutes on the court, said he’d never experienced such a game – “Not on both ends. I think everybody just found me and I was feeling more confident. Just being in the gym this last week we talked about competing . . . we’ve been in the guy shooting a lot, so I think that’s something that’s helped out.”
The Buffs needed good rhythm and good vibes – more than desperately – and ultimately found both. At home for three games, CU couldn’t afford a loss to Utah to precede visits by Washington State (Wednesday, 7:30 p.m., Pac-12 Network) and Washington (Sunday, Feb. 9, 6 p.m., ESPNU).
“This was a big game no matter how many we’d won or lost before,” Scott said. “It was a home game and you need to win at home. So, to me it was a next step for this team . . . a big step forward and hopefully it can keep going forward from here.”
Somewhere down the line – March perhaps? – losing at home to Utah would have left a bad mark. The Buffs had beaten the Utes in six of seven previous meetings, and Utah came to Boulder with a five-game road losing streak and having lost 10 road games in a row stretching to last season.
Those streaks almost ended at the CEC. After CU rallied from its 47-35 deficit to tie the score at 49-49 on the second of Talton’s back-to-back treys, Utah stayed close in the final 10 minutes and sent the game into overtime on Brandon Taylor’s fifth 3-pointer with 6 seconds left in regulation.
Utah had come into the game shooting 34 percent from beyond the arc, but the Utes shot 50 percent (four-of-eight) from long range in the first half and finished the game at 45.8 percent (11-of-24). Taylor and Delon Wright finished with 17 points each, with the versatile Wright adding 11 assists and seven steals – five of those in the first half.
They contributed to CU’s 10 first-half turnovers that produced 17 Utah points. But the Buffs settled themselves in the second half, committing only five more miscues, and amped up their board work to finish with a 42-24 advantage.
“We got out-rebounded by 18 – that’s the difference in the ball game,” said Utah coach Larry Krystkowiak. “Getting exposed in our last two games by that number of offensive rebounds by the other team, we don’t have a chance to compete against anybody.”
Boyle, meanwhile, called gathering offensive boards a large part of the mental makeup he’s been calling for: “Toughness shows up in rebounding stats . . . plus-18, that was the difference in the game.”
The Buffs fell behind 4-0, but quickly gathered themselves and led by as many as seven points on three occasions before the Utes stormed back with a 14-0 run and went up 33-26 with 2:53 left before halftime.
Utah stretched its lead to 12 by outscoring CU 10-4 to open the second half. The Utes added to their 3-point field goal total, getting a trey from Wright that followed a conventional three-point play by 7-foot center Dallin Bachynski, whose 7-2 older brother plays for Arizona State.
Down by 12 with 16:42 to play, the Buffs were sliding toward the abyss, but they never got there.
A 6-0 run – courtesy of two free throws by Johnson and baskets by Gordon and Eli Stalzer – sliced the Utes’ lead in half (47-41). And just over 3 minutes later, a 3-pointer by Talton from the left wing brought the Buffs to within 49-46 with 12:05 to play.
“You always want people to step up when their number is called,” Talton said. “I think Eli did a good job of that when he came in (and) Wesley definitely did on the boards getting the put backs and everything . . . Xavier Johnson as well. I think that if we continue to share the ball the sky’s the limit for our team.”
And “XT” wasn’t done; his trey from the left corner – set up by a Booker inside-out assist – completed a 14-2 CU run and tied the score at 49-49 at the 11:11 mark. The last 10 minutes produced six lead changes and five ties – the final one at 62-62 after a Booker follow shot was waived off when the officials ruled the shot clock had expired.
After that, Gordon hit one of two free throws with 25 seconds left and Scott hit both of his after a Utah turnover with 19.2 seconds showing. The Buffs were up 65-62, but at the 6-second mark, Taylor drained his fourth trey of the game, tying the score and leaving time for a straightaway Booker 30-footer as time expired.
It bounded off the back of the rim and OT was next. Talton’s fourth trey of the afternoon put CU up 68-65 and Utah never caught up. After Talton added a 15-foot jumper to send the Buffs up 73-69, Booker hit five of six free throws in the OT’s final 45.8 seconds and Johnson added one of two. Another late Taylor trey pulled the Utes to 79-75 – but this one was over.
Boyle said he was most proud of Johnson’s performance and the maturity the sophomore is showing: “He’s a guy I challenged. He doesn’t like sitting on the bench but when he gives you the kind of effort he did today on both ends of the floor and rebounding the basketball, holy cow is he good.”
While conceding the game’s importance and what it might mean to the remainder of the home stand and season, Boyle refrained from calling it a “must-win.” Instead, he pared it down to this: “I want to talk about the ‘must’ possessions, because if you take care of the ‘must’ possessions the wins take care of themselves. And so do the losses when you don’t.”
More often than not on Saturday, the “must” possessions went to CU. And eventually, so did the “W.”