ORLANDO, Fla. – The NCAA Tournament Selection Committee had a slightly higher opinion of Colorado than it did Pittsburgh. The Panthers must have taken it personally, and they took it to the Buffaloes in almost every way imaginable here Thursday.
No. 9 seed Pitt pounded No. 8 seed CU here in the NCAA’s second round, sending the Buffs back to the Rocky Mountains with a crushing 77-48 loss at the Amway Center.
CU made its third consecutive NCAA Tournament trip – a school record – but also made it a second straight “one-and-done” NCAA visit, with Thursday’s 29-point loss the school’s largest ever in NCAA play. The Buffs were eliminated 57-49 by Illinois in last March’s first tourney game in Austin, Texas.
CU dropped to 1-3 in NCAA Tournament competition under fourth-year coach Tad Boyle, but at 23-12 finished the 2013-14 season with the third-highest win total in school history. Yet it might take a while for Boyle to dismiss Thursday’s smack down and reflect on the Buffs’ overall accomplishments this season.
“We're obviously extremely disappointed with our performance today,” he said. “Credit goes to Pittsburgh; I don't want to take anything away from them. They're a great team. They've had a great year. They're good players and (have) a very good coach. But the Buffaloes for some reason or another did not play the way we're capable of playing. As a coach you take responsibility for that, which I do, but we're just very disappointed.”
Pitt (26-9) advances to Saturday’s third round, with its likely opponent top-seeded, top-ranked Florida. The Gators were heavy favorites against No. 16 seed Albany later Thursday afternoon. A 16th seed has never defeated a No. 1 seed in NCAA play.
The Buffs never led, never threatened and were never given – or maybe never gave themselves – a chance. Tourney games matching 8-9 seeds can be touch-and-go; this one was take a beating and go home. Pitt controlled the opening tip and everything thereafter.
CU had experienced a few bad first halves this season – both regular-season Arizona losses come immediately to mind – but nothing as horrific on this big a stage. The Wildcats defeated the Buffs twice during the regular season (69-47, 88-61) and eliminated them from the Pac-12 Tournament (63-43).
By intermission, the Panthers led 46-18 and had dealt the Buffs their worst halftime deficit of the season, held them to their lowest first-half point total, their lowest field goal total (five) and harassed the Buffs into 10 turnovers – the second most in a first half this season.
“You go in at halftime down 28, there's not a lot you can say to your guys positively,” Boyle said. “Other than the fact that we had to come out and compete, that's what . . . (but) you shouldn't have to ask your guys to do that.”
Pitt coach Jamie Dixon said his team’s ferocious defensive start “was pretty good, there’s no question about it” and “probably” the Panthers’ best defensive half of the season. “Maybe the North Carolina game early, first half, Wake Forest was very good,” Dixon said. “The good thing is we're talking about the last week or so, so we're a better team now than we were earlier in the year. That's what you hope to be . . .”
CU sophomore guard Xavier Talton said Pitt and CU’s fellow Pac-12 member Arizona were “pretty similar, actually (on defense). I know they were getting to the ball. They were getting 50/50 balls, as well. It just seemed like they wanted it more.”
CU’s 10 first-half errors – 17 for the game – presented Pitt with 12 of its 46 first-half points with another 24 Panthers points coming from inside the paint and 12 more off of fast breaks (14 for the game). Pitt might not have hit as many layups in its pregame drills.
And the afternoon’s final numbers only got worse: At game’s end, Pitt had outscored CU 44-14 in the paint and had converted the Buffs’ 17 turnovers into 24 points.
“We were just trying to set a tone,” said Pitt post Talib Zanna of his team’s early disruptive defense. “The energy, you can tell the energy was there and the focus. The first five minutes we played really good defense, and from there we just tried to get a lot of stops and just run the floor, and we had wide‑open lay‑ups.”
The 6-9, 230-pound Zanna was nothing short of a Nigerian nightmare for the Buffs, accounting for 16 first-half points on 6-of-7 from the field and 4-of-4 from the free throw line. His longest field goal was a 10-foot baseline jumper; otherwise, he was hitting either layups or put-backs and CU’s post defense never found an antidote.
Zanna finished with a game-best 18 points, while Josh Scott led CU with 14. Guards Cameron Wright (11) and Lamar Patterson (10) joined Zanna in double figures. The only other CU player reaching double figures was Xavier Johnson (11). Pitt checked out at 51 percent from the field (31-of-61), CU at 36 percent (15-of-42).
No Buffs player had more than 5 first-half points, and none had an assist – which paled alongside Pitt’s 13. Said Boyle: “I think Pittsburgh is a great passing team. They really move the ball. They come off those ball screens and they make the right decision and they get the ball moved side to side. They get you in rotations.”
CU managed five second-half assists – the same as Pitt – but a final 18-5 discrepancy in assists said as much as anything about the Buffs’ forlorn afternoon.
“You look at our defense, you look at our rebounding, we're down 15‑8 at halftime on the boards,” Boyle said. “They're shooting 62 percent and we've got zero assists and 10 turnovers. It's pretty simple. We've got to take care of the ball better and we've got to guard better and we've got to rebound better. We didn't do any of those things today. I don't know what Colorado team it was.”
The Panthers held the Buffs scoreless for the first 5:41 and led 13-0 before forward Wes Gordon, watching the shot clock run toward 0:00, hit his fourth 3-pointer of the season. It was a typical CU first-half possession, the best shot CU could get against a Pitt defense that reduced the Buffs’ trips inside to nearly nothing, almost immediately double-teamed Scott and made CU look lost on the perimeter.
“It's something I've had to work on all year, and they were a good defensive team and they rotated out of it,” Scott said. “They covered a lot of space, so credit to them.”
The physical encounter that had been forecast never materialized – at least not for the Buffs. The Panthers, playing their first season in the Atlantic Coast Conference after a long Big East membership, controlled most “50/50” balls and outrebounded the Buffs 33-29 for the game.
Johnson contended Pitt’s physicality didn’t surprise him or his teammates: “No, not at all. We’ve played against some physical teams and I’m a physical player, so I enjoy that.”
Arizona, Johnson said, “is the most physical team I’ve played all year. (Pitt) is big and they’re strong, but no more physical than Arizona.”
The Panthers led by as many 32 points in the second half. With 2:27 to play, Boyle gave his only two seniors – Beau Gamble and Ben Mills – and seldom-used reserve Kevin Nelson their chances for an NCAA Tournament appearance. Gamble hit a 3-pointer from the right corner at the buzzer for the final points of his CU career.
Despite the season’s unsightly end, Boyle said the “future is bright for our program . . . our program is on the ascent, it's not on the descent. We lose two seniors who weren't in the rotation, terrific young men. But if this can't motivate our guys going into the off season, for getting in the weight room, working on their game, whether it's passing, whether it's dribbling, whether it's shooting the ball, whether it's defense, rebounding, toughness, if this can't motivate them, I don't know what does.
“But I think it will. I know it will me to become a better coach. I've got to help them more offensively so we don't have five assists and 17 turnovers . . . we've shown the defensive aptitude in the past. We didn't have it (Thursday) for whatever reason.”
Boyle, his staff and their returning players have a long time to try and figure it out.