HONOLULU (Updated Dec. 29 p.m.) — Sophomore Cory Higgins led an underclassmen assault here Sunday night with his first career double-double to lead the University of Colorado Buffaloes men’s basketball team to an 80-63 victory over the Coppin State University Eagles in the first round of the 45th Annual Outrigger Hotels Rainbow Classic.
Higgins scored 21 points and collected a career-high 10 rebounds, doing much of his damage from the foul line where he converted all 12 of his attempts, the third best performance from the stripe in school history. It was the fifth time this year he led CU in both scoring and rebounding and he ran his consecutive streak of free throws made to 28. But he had plenty of help from Colorado’s other youngsters.
Sophomore transfer Casey Crawford added 12 points, junior Dwight Thorne 11 and senior Jermyl Jackson-Wilson 10, while freshman Nate Tomlinson scored nine points on three long-range three-pointers and dished out a season and career high six assists.
CU underclassmen, particularly sophomores, seem to do well in the islands; freshman center Richard Fox made the all tournament team in 1999 when the Buffs captured third place in its only previous Rainbow Classic appearance. And it was 10 years ago this week that sophomore Ben Kelly became the first player in NCAA bowl history to return the opening kickoff for a touchdown in Colorado’s 51-43 win over Oregon in the old Aloha Bowl.
Colorado (7-3) won its fourth straight game, its longest winning streak in nearly three years. The Buffs last had won more than three in a row in January 2006 when they reeled off five straight victories. This one was never in doubt after halftime, when CU worked to a 16-point advantage early in the second half and never let the Eagles get to within 10 points the rest of the way.
The lead usually hovered around 14-to-17 points the entire second half, and Coppin pulled to within 10 for the last time at 61-51 with seven minutes remaining. A 7-0 run keyed by Tomlinson’s third trey and thanks to making all but one of 15 second half free throw attempts, the Buffs were able to keep CSU at an arm’s length and then some and the Eagles got no closer than 13 the remainder of the night. The CU lead peaked at 78-60 in the final minute of play.
“We let their pressure bother us a little bit at first, but once we figured it out things went okay and we pushed the lead up,” Higgins said. “We’re getting better and better every game. We have to improve on the defensive end, we have to rebound better and we need to cut down our turnovers. Coach said we had 18 tonight and that is way too many.”
“He was rather modest about his free throw accomplishments. “Any time you can get to the free throw line it’s easy buckets so I use it and I just try to make that contact. Usually the ref gives me the call.”
Coppin State (1-9) dropped its ninth straight game, though the Eagles came in playing one of the nation’s toughest schedules including losses to three ranked teams while playing just once at home. Tywain McKee, the NCAA’s 23rd leading scorer at 20.6 points per game, did not score his first points until over three minutes into the second half after getting in early foul trouble while also being a focal point of the CU defense. The senior guard finished with just nine points.
“There were a lot of good things tonight, we shot 55 percent from the floor, 50 percent of our three-point shots and 88 percent from the line, we outrebounded somebody and we have four players in double figures,” CU head coach Jeff Bzdelik said. “But 18 turnovers, that’s not so good. In fact, I think Coppin State got 36 of their 63 points off second chance points and off turnovers. Turnovers continue to be a concern, especially tomorrow against a very good team.”
He was making light of the fact that CU had been outrebounded for six straight games until winning the battle Sunday, 33-24.
Bzdelik continues to like what he sees out of Higgins. “It speaks volumes for where we’re headed with this basketball program. He continues to get stronger and wiser and more confident. We just need to keep heading north, so to speak.”
It was CU’s best shooting performance from the free throw line with 20 or more attempts in nine seasons. CU converted 21-of-24 (.875) Sunday night, its 20-plus try best since Feb. 21, 2001, when the Buffs made 21-of-22 at Kansas (95.5). And by making 26-of-47 field goals, Colorado on the year is just about back at 50 percent (243-of-487, or 49.9), one of just nine teams in the nation at that mark or better.
The game was tied just once, that coming at 2-2 after CU freshman Austin Dufault opened the scoring with a jumper at the 17:49 mark. Jordan Lee then tied it with a jump shot on the Eagles’ next possession and then the Buffaloes raced out to a 7-2 edge, and after trading baskets for three minutes, still held a 10-8 lead with 12:34 left in the half.
Colorado had three significant runs to close the first half, each one utilized to build large leads after Coppin State pulled to within striking distance. The first was a 7-0 spurt that opened a 17-8 lead, with baskets by Crawford and Levi Knutson sandwiching a Nate Tomlinson three-pointer. Two straight hoops by the Eagles cut the margin down to 17-12 with 7:27 remaining, but CU countered with a 10-4 spree on the strength of five points from Jermyl Jackson-Wilson, a Knutson jumper and a long rainbow three from Tomlinson to run the lead to 27-16 with five minutes left.
Vince Goldberry popped in two jumpers in a six-point run by the Eagles that again closed the gap, this time to 27-22 at the 3:14 mark. Undaunted, the Buffs regrouped to close the half on a 9-2 run, with Crawford scoring five and Higgins the other four as CU took a 36-24 halftime lead. CU hung around 50 percent shooting the entire half, finishing up at 54.2 on 13-of-24 accuracy along with 7-of-9 from the line. Coppin State shot just 41 percent and did not shoot a free throw until its opening possession of the second half, but did convert nine CU turnovers into 10 first half points, the main reason the Eagles were able to hang around.
The Buffaloes advance on to the championship bracket semifinals where they will take on Buffalo, a 72-71 winner in overtime over Pepperdine Sunday. It will be just the second meeting between the two, as CU won the only previous game on Jan. 13, 1993, a 93-50 romp in Boulder. It’ll be the second significant meeting between sports teams from the two areas in less than 10 days, as the Buffalo Bills upset the Denver Broncos on Dec. 21 which eventually led to Denver missing the playoffs after Sunday’s NFL action.
“Buffalo is a very good basketball team and they gave Connecticut all they could handle,” Bzdelik added. “They are very strong and physical. We’ll have to do a much better job of taking care of the basketball and hitting the boards.”
If CU defeats Buffalo, it would play Colorado State in the championship game, as the Rams defeated Vermont in Monday's first semifinal, 82-76. The Buffs defeated CSU in Boulder back on Dec. 10 by a 75-56 score, though ending that game on a 20-2 run. Higgins scored 33 in that game, 28 in the second half.
NOTES: Higgins 12-of-12 effort from the line was second only to a pair of 16-of-16 efforts in CU history, Jo Jo Hunter versus Iowa State in 1980 and Chauncey Billups against Oklahoma in 1996 ... Higgins is CU’s leading scorer, upping his average to 18.2 points per game ... Six of CU’s seven wins have been by 10 or more points, and the 80 points were second most to the 82 scored in an overtime loss to Montana State in November ... Bzdelik is now 4-0 against Coppin State; he’s never coached against Buffalo ... CU’s starting lineup of Tomlinson, Higgins, Thorne, Jackson-Wilson and Dufault are now 6-0, winning their fourth straight ... The game started at 11:05 p.m. mountain time (8:05 in Hawai’i), some 28 minutes later than scheduled due to the Buffalo-Pepperdine game going into overtime ... Hawai’i had won seven of the last 11 classics, but with the Rainbow Warriors losing in the first round, it guarantees a first-time tournament champion among the other seven participants ... One of those was in 1999, when UH toppled the Buffaloes in a championship semifinal; CU defeated Gonzaga to finish third in its only previous appearance in the tournament ... Only two Big 12 schools have been crowned champion here, Missouri in 1985 and Iowa State in 2005; the only two conference teams not to appear in at least one Rainbow Classic are Baylor and Kansas State ... Should both CU and CSU win their semifinal games Monday, the two would meet twice in the same season for just the second time since the 1956-57 season; that came in 1998-99, when the rivals met once in the regular season and then in the postseason NIT. CU defeated CSU 75-56 in Boulder earlier this month (Dec. 10) ... A CU-UVM matchup for either first or third place would pair up two of the nation's top ski rivals ... Glancing at the record book for the event, it’s a who’s who of some of the greatest names in college basketball history; among those who still hold records are the late Pete Maravich, Elvin Hayes and Lindsey Hunter ... Colorado arrived here on Christmas Eve, and in addition to four practice sessions prior to opening tournament play, the team took a tour of Pearl Harbor which was quite moving according to Bzdelik.
45th Annual Outrigger Hotels Rainbow Classic
Saturday, Dec. 27
Vermont 83, George Washington 72
Colorado State 74, Hawai’i 58
Sunday, Dec. 28
Buffalo 72, Pepperdine 71 (OT)
Colorado 80, Coppin State 63
Monday, Dec. 29
Colorado State 82, Vermont 76
Colorado vs. Buffalo, 8 p.m. MST
Pepperdine 58, Coppin State 56
George Washington vs. Hawai’i, 10:30 p.m. MST
Tuesday, Dec. 30
TBA vs. Colorado State, 10:30 p.m. MST
TBA vs. Vermont, 4:30 p.m. MST (third place game)
TBA vs. Hawai'i, 8:00 p.m. MST
TBA vs. TBA, 2:00 p.m. MST