The Colorado men's basketball team narrowly earned its first Pac-12 win over Southern California on Thursday night, but one of the biggest struggles of the season continued to hinder the Buffs: finishing strong in the second half.
For all three conference match-ups so far this season, the Buffs have built up a considerable lead in the first half before watching it dwindle in the second. Against Arizona last Thursday, the Buffs let a 17-point first-half lead slip away in the second. Regardless of the controversial buzzer-beater call, the fact that the Buffs let the Wildcats pull so close ultimately gave them the chance to steal the win in overtime.
Two days later against Arizona State, the Buffs allowed a 13-point advantage in the first half to turn into a 12-point deficit late in the second. ASU held CU scoreless for more than seven minutes, meanwhile going on an 11-0 run from which the Buffs never recovered.
And while Thursday's USC matchup finally went CU's way, that second-half struggle was still a problem. In just seven minutes, the Trojans were able to close CU's 17-point lead to seven, ensuring the Buffs were kept on their toes until the final buzzer.
"As a team, we have to stay mentally focused for a full 40 minutes," said lone CU senior Sabatino Chen. "When we get up, we get a little too comfortable and relaxed . . . we have to learn to finish teams when we are up."
The Buffs had just one day to regroup before another home game against UCLA (13-3, 3-0) Saturday at noon. The Bruins won 57-53 at Utah on Thursday night, their eighth straight win. UCLA defeated CU 77-60 last season in Los Angeles and leads the series 5-1.
Some of the pressure the Buffs have faced late in games is due to poor free throw shooting. In CU's three conference matchups so far, the team has not averaged better than 75 percent from the line, and against both Arizona and USC that number dipped into the 50s.
During Thursday night's game, the Buffs made just 6-of-11 in the second half, making it more difficult on themselves to hold onto an already-dwindling lead. The Trojans capitalized off those second-half mistakes and were able to pull within single digits in the final two minutes.
"We've got to make free throws to beat good teams," CU coach Tad Boyle said. "It's already cost us one game (at Arizona), and it'll cost us another if we don't figure it out."
Boyle has seen good things from his team in stretches, but he's still waiting for a game in which the Buffs play smart for a full 40 minutes. They have the talent and the potential to stay strong against tough teams, Boyle said, yet they struggle to maintain focus for an entire game.
But how does a coach fix a mental block?
"Number one, you've got to watch film so that the players understand the mistakes that they're making," Boyle said. "But in terms of what's going on in their heads, that's a tricky thing. You know, I always say if I knew in college that I was going to be a college basketball coach, I would've majored in psychology and not business, because maybe I'd be better able to answer that question."
But what Boyle and his team can control, they will - and that's building skills and playing efficiently.
"It's not like our team is lost, it's not like we don't understand," Boyle said. "When it comes down to it, basketball is about execution - making plays at the end or not making plays."
The Buffs have been working on the lingering free-throw issue this week especially, both individually and in practice. Immediately after getting off the bus from a not-so-perfect Arizona trip last week, Boyle had each member of his team shoot 100 free throws.
The way sophomore guard Askia Booker sees it, relentless practice might be the only way to alleviate a mental struggle.
"I think most of it's mental, but a big part of it is still practicing," Booker said. "And not just as a team . . . you've got to stay after practice and get in the gym, shoot maybe 500 if you want to be good."