NEW YORK - In a game that for the final 10 minutes inevitably trickled toward a decisive final possession, Alabama's last shot was good, Colorado's wasn't. Difference was, 'Bama's winning basket was a layup, CU's shot to win was a 22-footer.
Even the best of players will miss open looks - which Buffs sophomore Alec Burks did Tuesday night with 2.3 seconds to play. But that won't bother CU Coach Tad Boyle through the off-season nearly as much as the layup allowed Alabama freshman Trevor Releford a little over 10 seconds earlier.
Releford's slash through CU's defense pushed the Crimson Tide past the Buffs 62-61 in the semifinals of the 2011 NIT at Madison Square Garden, bringing a record-setting debut season under Boyle to a disappointing conclusion.
"Our guys really battled . . . but we just didn't come up with that stop, complete stop when we had to. That was the difference in the game," said Boyle, whose first CU team won a school-record 24 games (14 losses). "We got good looks the last two possessions by two of our better players (Burks, Cory Higgins). You take that as a coach offensively. Defensively, I just hate giving up a layup to lose the game."
Not that it was on his mind at the time or at any previous point, but Higgins' missed 10-footer in the lane on CU's next-to-last possession would have put the Buffs up by three points and nudged Higgins into first place as the school's career scoring leader. Higgins finished the game with 13 points and his brilliant CU career with 2,001, tying Richard Roby (2004-08).
Said Boyle: "Cory Higgins is a guy that as a coach, when it's all said and done, you say it's a pleasure to coach him and I'm proud to coach him . . . I wish we had him for another year."
The same wish holds true for Burks, the talented 6-foot-6 sophomore who is deliberating on declaring himself eligible for the NBA Draft or returning for his junior year.
"Alec and I have sat down two or three times during the season and now that it's over, we'll give it some time to sink in," Boyle said. "I know he will get with his mother and they will make a decision that's best for their family. As his coach, I'm going to support him in whatever he does, I know that. I've told him that and I've told his family that; whatever that may be, and right now we don't know the answer to that, obviously."
Burks finished with a team-high 20 points Tuesday night, but like most of his teammates didn't have a spectacular shooting night. The Buffs' Big Three scorers - Burks, Higgins and Levi Knutson - were a combined 15-of-41 from the field. As a team, CU was 20-of-50 (40.0 percent), while 'Bama hit 28-of-56 (50.0 percent).
"It was one of those nights where we struggled shooting the ball," Boyle said. "Levi got hot in the second half (scoring 11 of his 14) and got us back in the game. But we shot 40 percent for the game and again that's a testament to Alabama and the way they guard."
The Crimson Tide, which plays Wichita State on Thursday (5 p.m., MDT) for the NIT Championship, also burned the Buffs inside. With 6-foot-8 forward JaMychal Green scoring a game-best 22 points before fouling out in the final 3 minutes, 'Bama blistered the Buffs in the paint 42-16.
"Inside was where they had the strength," Boyle said. "They had the advantage on us, and we just didn't overcome it tonight like we have in games past."
CU junior forward Austin Dufault called Green "one of the best I've played this year. He really showed out his ability to step out tonight and make jumpers, especially the second half. That was something big for him, to get him kind of going, and he's a tough player. He can do it all. He showed that tonight. So he's definitely up there, one of the best I've played against."
When Green fouled out with 2:27 remaining, "I really liked our chances," said Boyle. Green's fifth foul sent Burks to the line for a one-and-one. He hit both, cutting the Tide lead to 60-59.
A Tide turnover and dunk by Andre Roberson gave CU a 61-60 advantage, and after Higgins missed his jumper, 'Bama took a timeout with 36 seconds showing. After a miss, a controlled rebound and another time out, Releford drove for what would be the Tide's winning layup and what he would call "the biggest shot" of his career.
"The game‑winning shot, I just felt like they kept wanting me to go to the screen and were blitzing me and I rejected it," Releford said. "I was able to get a shot up and it went in."
CU took a timeout to set its strategy with 9.1 seconds showing. Burks got the inbounds pass, dribbled slightly right of the top of key, jumped - and missed off the back of the rim. After CU couldn't grab the rebound and time expired, Burks crumpled to the Garden floor.
Was it the shot the Buffs wanted?
Said Knutson: "I'll take Alec with a 15‑footer any day. It just didn't go down. That wasn't the difference in the game. There were a lot of plays in the game that were the difference, but I'll take that shot any day with Alec putting it up from 15 feet."
Television replays showed Burks' shot to be longer, but it didn't matter. It bounced away, leaving Alabama Coach Anthony Grant relieved and grateful for his team's 25th win of the season (11 losses). "Obviously the game could have gone either way," he said. "Burks took the last shot and he has made so many of those. We were fortunate the bounce went our way and we have the opportunity to play for a championship."
Alabama's zone defense and aggressive pressure forced CU into 12 of its 16 turnovers in the first half. But the Buffs adjusted, attacked more efficiently after halftime and rallied from a 10-point deficit early in the second half to take a five-point lead in the last 5 minutes.
Grant called CU "a very explosive team . . . They got on a roll in the second half, which obviously changed what we wanted to do, and obviously the thing we have talked about all year is that defensively, we are a team that can defend a lot of different ways. We can play zone. We can play man. We can press. We can do a lot of different things. And I think obviously maybe in the first half, kind of - they were off‑balance a little bit, kind of off kilter because of the zone. I don't think it was something they expected. Like any good team, they regrouped at halftime and they came out and they attacked it pretty aggressively."
Green, a first-team All-SEC selection, led the Tide with 12 first-half points, while Burks had 13 and Higgins 10 for the Buffs. Higgins' halftime total put him four points away from breaking Roby's career scoring record. But he managed just three second-half points, finishing 4-of-14 from the field.
A pair of short jumpers by Green opened the second-half scoring and pushed 'Bama's lead to 10 (40-30) before CU rallied. Burks converted a three-point play and Knutson hit a trey from the left corner to pull the Buffs to within 40-36 with 17:17 remaining.
Knutson was feeling it. He scored CU's next eight points - the first two on a floater from the right baseline, the next six on two treys again from the left corner - and suddenly the Buffs were within 46-44 with 13:47 remaining.
Just under a minute later, Marcus Relphorde hit one of two free throws and CU closed to 46-45, capping a 15-6 run. After a Releford foul shot, Relphorde completed CU's comeback with a reverse layup, tying the score at 47-47 with 11:11 left. Half a minute later, Higgins hit one of two free throws - and the Buffs had their first lead - 48-47 - since 17-15.
The Buffs went ahead by three points (50-47), then four (55-51) before Relphorde was called for an intentional foul for grabbing the driving Releford with 6:47 to play. The freshman from Kansas City hit one of two free throws (55-52), but 'Bama wasted the rest of the possession with a traveling call.
CU went up 57-52 - its biggest lead of the game - on a dunk off a turnover by freshman Andre Roberson and a Higgins jumper. But the Buffs couldn't hold that advantage or make a final defensive stand.
Boyle congratulated 'Bama, but also paid tribute to his team: "I thought that was a hard‑fought game by two good basketball teams playing late in March. They were just a little bit better tonight than we were . . . but I'm really proud of our team and the way we fought, the way we competed and the way we hung in there. We just came up a little bit short tonight. We had some really good looks, and they just made one more play at the end than we did, and that was the difference in the game. That's what makes it so hard.
"But I'll take these guys any day of the week because we have come a long way this year as a team, and I couldn't be more proud of the young men in our locker room."