LAS VEGAS In March, basketball teams can live on their game’s intangibles and die without them. On an afternoon when their leading scorer’s frustration nearly overshadowed his productivity and little else went smoothly, the Colorado Buffaloes turned to those intangibles to survive and they did.
No. 5 seed CU used an 8-0 run late in the second half to pull away from No. 12 seed Southern California, then held on loosely to eliminate the Trojans 59-56 in Wednesday’s first round of the Pac-12 Conference Tournament.
A relieved CU coach Tad Boyle called it an exercise in winning ugly but in March ugly still counts. The Buffs (22-10) advance to play No. 4 seed California (19-12) in Thursday’s quarterfinal round (3:30 p.m. MDT) in the MGM Garden Arena. In their only meeting this season, Cal defeated CU by one point in overtime last weekend in Berkeley.
CU’s 22nd win of the season ties for the fourth-most wins in school history, with Boyle owning three of the top four winningest seasons.
Reaching the quarterfinals was more difficult than many imagined for CU. USC, losers of 11 of its final 12 regular-season games, took a five-point lead with 9:46 remaining Wednesday and appeared ready to close out the erratic Buffs, who had swept the Trojans (11-21) in their two previous meetings.
But CU dialed up one of the intangibles mental toughness that finally surfaced late in the regular season and nearly carried the Buffs to a sweep of their Bay Area road trip. It arrived when needed in Vegas, and it came in the form of chasing down long rebounds, loose balls and protecting the ball over the game’s final 10 minutes. The Buffs committed nine of their 13 turnovers in the first half, the other four in the opening minutes of the second half.
“When you don’t play your best and you’re off your game with multiple guys on multiple levels and you figure out a way to win, that’s a testament to your mental toughness,” Boyle said. “When it’s a game that shots aren’t going in and you’re struggling offensively and the whistle is not going your way on either side, that’s where mental toughness really has to take over. That’s where I think our team over the last two weeks has made tremendous strides.”
Down 47-42 with just under 10 minutes to play, maybe CU’s and junior guard Askia Booker’s alarm buttons were hit. Booker converted a three-point play, followed with a 15-foot jumper, then fed Xavier Johnson for a stuff that tied the score at 49-49 with 8:01 left.
“Around the first media timeout in the second half, I told myself that it’s either now or never,” Booker said. “I talked to coach (Jean) Prioleau and he said, It’s time.’ That’s when I told myself, let’s get going.
Booker led the Buffs with 21 points his fifth 20-point game of the season and seventh of his career. He also contributed seven rebounds and four assists against only one turnover. Boyle said Booker “made some big-time plays, but he played with great composure. We’re going to need him to do that because he’s important to our team, as all our guys are.”
One of Booker’s most significant plays belonged in the intangible column. Going out of bounds to retrieve a long rebound off a teammate’s missed shot, Booker leaped and slammed the ball off a Trojans player’s leg with 10.2 seconds left to give the Buffs another possession.
“They got a loose ball that was going out of bounds and threw it off our legs. They got the ball back,” first-year USC coach Andy Enfield said.
When Booker has reached 20-plus points this season, the Buffs are 4-1. He’s been at his best against USC, averaging 20.2 points, 6.1 rebounds and 5.1 assists in three wins against the Trojans this season. The Buffs won 83-62 in Boulder, 83-74 in Los Angeles and now lead the series 7-3, including 5-0 since joining the Pac-12 in 2011.
Sophomore post Josh Scott, frustrated and held to one first-half point largely by USC’s large (7-0, 270) Egyptian center, Omar Oraby, keyed CU’s decisive 8-0 run with three consecutive baskets inside to break a 50-50 tie and give the Buffs a 56-50 advantage with 4:10 to play.
When Booker added a layup in transition, the Buffs had their largest lead of the afternoon 58-50 and the Trojans were in desperation mode. As it had all game, USC turned to Byron Wesley (23 points) for five of its last seven points and a potential game-tying 3-pointer that clanged off the left side of the rim at the buzzer.
Scott, who attempted only three first-half shots and made one of two free throws, scored 12 second-half points and collected a game-high nine rebounds a respectable ending to a frustrating afternoon for CU’s leading scorer (14.5 ppg).
“It was frustrating,” Scott said. “I think that was pretty obvious I was pretty frustrated. But I thank my teammates a lot for having confidence in me to keep getting me the ball there at the end. It tells me that they still have confidence even when I might not have the most confidence in myself at the time.”
Boyle called the 6-10 Scott “the ultimate battler . . . that’s what he does. He battles every day on every possession offense and defense. People have no idea how big and how strong Oraby is . . . I didn’t want to play Josh as many minutes (33) as I did. I hoped I wouldn’t have to, but you’ve got to survive and advance.”
Scott finished 4-of-14 from the field, but frontcourt mates Wesley Gordon and Johnson had his back each hitting four of their six field goal attempts. Johnson scored eight of his 11 points in the first half, when he hit back-to-back 3-pointers on his only two attempts to give CU its largest first-half lead 10-4. But the Buffs led by only two 29-27 at intermission. The 6-9 Gordon finished the afternoon with eight points, six rebounds, one blocked shot, one assist and one steal.
Gordon called the Trojans “a different team than the Southern California team that we’ve played before. They came out with a lot of energy and they were very physical with us. They played really, really well.”
The Buffs outrebounded the Trojans 38-27, out-pointed them in the paint 34-30 and had 10 fast break points to USC’s two. The Trojans’ bench outscored the Buffs’ 9-2, with Dustin Thomas scoring CU’s only points off the bench. One of the reserves Boyle used was freshman Tre’Shaun Fletcher, who suffered a knee injury on Jan. 12 at Washington and had not played until Wednesday. Fletcher played 3 minutes and missed his only field goal attempt.
CU hit just nine of its 16 free throw attempts, with its 56.3 percentage the second lowest of the season. USC attempted 22 3-pointers, making just five. “It’s been a weakness of ours all year,” Enfield said. “We need to get some guys to make shots.”
Overnight Wednesday and on Thursday morning, CU turns its focus toward Cal. The Buffs like the short time five days between games; the memory of the OT loss remains fresh.
“We lose to them, like, just a couple of days ago and we get another crack at them. You can’t ask for more,” said Scott, adding that the intangibles the Buffs latched onto in Vegas eluded them in Berkeley. “They got a couple of loose balls, long rebounds that we had to get to win the game. We didn’t, so that hurt our chances.”
But, added Booker, “I think we can compete with them with anybody in the Pac-12 really. But (Thursday) is the day to come out and prove it.”