BOULDER—In the end they were alone. Away from the high-pitched throng that had greeted them for their biggest home game of the season two hours earlier. Away from the critical eye of the detractors that said they wouldn’t be ready for such a big stage. And away from the team that so thoroughly stole their night, a night that should have been a celebratory culmination of the official resurrection of a program.
The Buffs were humbled before 11,000 of their closest friends and a nation-wide ESPN audience on Saturday in the most humiliating way possible. Little if any solace could have been taken from their 88-61 loss to fourth-ranked Arizona and afterwards, head coach Tad Boyle confirmed that by being as painfully blunt as he has ever been in his four years at the helm of CU basketball.
“My hat goes off to Arizona,” said Boyle. “They whipped us tonight in every which way you can whip a team. Our fans and our seniors deserve better than they got tonight and for that I am truly sorry. It was a disappointing performance by our team and I have to look square in the mirror on that, as their coach. I didn’t do a very good job tonight.”
The day began with the releasing of enough pent-up excitement to fill the Coors Events Center three times over. At last ESPN College Gameday had come to Boulder and with them came all of the exposure and publicity Boyle has longed for as he continues to try to build Colorado basketball into something special. Something akin to the levels of the Dukes, Kentuckys, Kansas’, and yes the Arizonas that they have all grown so accustomed to. As the night began he felt his team was ready to show a nation that CU, too, was worthy of headliner status. Instead they were treated to a lesson on what separates the good from the great, courtesy of Sean Miller and his sharp-shooting Wildcats.
“The onus is on Colorado basketball,” said Boyle. “The coach and the players had a lot to do with (the loss) tonight. Arizona had a lot to do with (the loss) tonight. We talk all the time and focus on preparing to beat the best teams. In order to do that, you have to be efficient, unselfish and together offensively. We were none of that tonight.”
Just as one of the biggest crowds in CEC history began to settle into their seats, things began to take a premature turn for the worst. Arizona jumped out to a 22-5 lead as CU missed each and every one of their first 14 shots from the field. Most often they settled for rushed long-range shots while the Wildcats were making the extra pass, and running their offense to peak proficiency, often leading to easy opportunities around the basket.
The Buffs actually absorbed that initial blow, recovered from it and temporarily battled their way back into the game. Josh Scott, playing in his first career game in which he did not start, came off the bench to score 10 points over the final 10 minutes of the first half in helping CU trim a once 17-point Arizona lead to just six points by halftime.
But before the CEC faithful could even consider the possibility of an incredible comeback, they saw their team buried under a barrage of deadly accurate jumpers, fast break layups and the weight of a tenacious defense that made breathing room scarce for a Buff offense that was left gasping.
“I can’t emphasize how good they are defensively,” said Boyle. “There are 11 other teams in the Pac-12 and then there’s Arizona. It’s not even close (on the defensive end). Our frustrations on offense led to a dunk-fest and they missed (just) four shots in the second half.”
Even if the Buffs had played their best game of the season on Saturday night it would have been unlikely that could’ve found a way to overcome a Wildcats team that scored 57 points and shot an almost preposterous 84.6 percent from the field in that second half.
Instead of folding under the hot glare of a hard-charging Buffs team that was right back in the thick of things with 20 minutes still to play, Arizona obstructed every avenue the Buffs used to seize momentum late in the first half and then proceeded to turn out the lights. The Wildcats’ 57-point offensive output was strengthened by a low-post defense that limited top-offensive option Scott to just one field goal in the second half. In the ultimate testament to Arizona’s low-post presence on both ends of the court, the Wildcats finished the night by out-scoring the Buffs 38-14 in the painted area.
“They contested almost every shot,” said junior guard Askia Booker. “Some defenses you can break down and get to the paint and kick it out but every time we kicked the ball out it seems like they were right on you. It’s tough to get shots when they’re right there. Every time we tried to pass the ball to the post, they sent in double teams and we had to make plays from there and sometimes I think our space wasn’t so good.”
The Buffs now head back to drawing board in an effort to hastily save their NCAA Tournament dream. After a home loss that the tournament selection committee will likely frown upon, they know it becomes paramount that they finish the regular season strong as they travel to three hostile road environments over the next two weeks.
“We have a week to get ready and you want to have that week,” said Booker. “Road games are the toughest, especially in the Pac-12 and we’re going to take some days off. We’re going to be ready for (Utah), I guarantee it. We’re all embarrassed, man, really embarrassed. This is something that, whether we’re on the road or at home, should never happen again.”
CU’s game at Utah on Saturday tips off at noon (Pac-12 Network). It is followed by games at Stanford (Wednesday, March 5) and California (Saturday, March 8) before the Pac-12 Tournament in Las Vegas (March 12-15).