BOULDER - It was almost déjà vu . . . but with a much happier ending. Three nights after a Texas A&M three-pointer with under 2 seconds to play tied Colorado and eventually brought a devastating overtime loss, Kansas State had CU in a hauntingly familiar position.
With 1.1 seconds remaining, the Buffaloes were ahead by two and defending the Wildcats' in-bounds play. After CU Coach Tad Boyle had called timeout to set his defense, the ball was lobbed cross court to Rodney McGruder, who caught it - and despite having 6-foot-6 Alec Burks draped on him - leaped, turned and buried what was ruled on the court as a game-winning three-pointer at the buzzer.
TGFR - that's Thank God For Replay.
Tom O'Neill, Jeb Hartness and Greg Rennergarbe - three guys in stripes who hadn't made many new friends in the Coors Events Center to that point - huddled at the scorer's table, watched the tape and ruled McGruder's eighth three-point attempt of the night (he'd already hit three) left his hand a fraction of a second too late.
Score it CU 58, K-State 56 - and color Boyle and his Buffs a relieved and happy bunch after breaking a two-game losing streak and sweeping the Wildcats for the first time since 2003-04.
"What a difference a day makes . . . our players deserved this win after what happened on Wednesday night when we gave one away," said Boyle, who didn't look at the Events Center video boards for a hint of the officials' ruling, preferring to wait on whatever word he was given. "I couldn't tell . . . but I thought we guarded it well."
Senior Cory Higgins "wasn't confident at all" that McGruder's shot would be waved off. "But then I heard the students, I guess they were pretty confident . . . when we saw the (video) screen and we all knew it was no good."
After K-State Coach Frank Martin watched "the clip on the television screen on the (scorer's) table the second time it was run . . . I saw the light had gone off and it wasn't any good. If you don't play well enough then you don't deserve to win and we didn't play well enough."
Burks was close to disbelief that McGruder even got the shot away but also believed it didn't hit the net in time: "It was crazy for anybody to make that. It was like a 'horse shot' or something. I don't know how he made it. He saw me everywhere he was shooting. I had my hands in his face . . . I saw the red light go off; I know he didn't get it off in time."
Like Boyle, though, the capacity crowd of 11,052 - CU's third sellout this season - couldn't spell (or experience) relief until the official ruling. CU fans left the building thankful they'd stayed despite a first half that was mud ugly.
Higgins called it "the most unorthodox game I think I've played in. It was that way against them last year, too . . . it's just their style of play, but we have to match it. It's why it's such a grudge match when we play these guys."
Higgins led the Buffs with 17 points and Levi Knutson added 16. But Burks, who had been in double figures in 24 of 25 games this season, had to be content with his 10 rebounds - a game high - and eight points.
"Don't matter what I did," Burks said, "we won."
Boyle said that happened because of his "gold" team - mostly second-line players who haven't seen much (or in some cases any) playing time during the Big 12 Conference season. That list includes 7-foot freshman Ben Mills, who saw his first Big 12 duty; senior Javon Coney; junior Trey Eckloff; and redshirt freshman Shannon Sharpe, whom Boyle said "really grew up tonight" filling in for injured (sprained ankle) point guard Nate Tomlinson.
Sharpe finished with eight points in 21 minutes, his high in conference play. He was at his best going to the rim, with one of his three field goals a highlight dunk from the baseline.
Mills didn't score during his nine minutes, but contributed a pair of blocks. He also was in on K-State's final play, stationed at the rim to guard against a lob. "It was really fun for me to get in the game and try and contribute and help as much as I could," he said, noting his first block "was an adrenaline rush for me . . . I think it built some momentum."
Once again, the Buffs were without Tomlinson, who sat out his second consecutive game due to an ankle sprain suffered last weekend at Missouri. On Thursday, Tomlinson said he expected to play, and he tried to practice on Friday. But he wasn't in uniform Saturday night after the ankle bothered him during CU's afternoon shoot-around.
And once again, his presence at the point was missed. The Buffs committed 11 turnovers in a first half that was a struggle in almost every way. Neither team found any offensive flow, but CU might have been the more deficient. The Buffs shot just 28.6 percent from the field, and had they not converted nine of their 10 free throw attempts, they undoubtedly would have trailed by more than two (23-21) at intermission.
On the flip side, had the Wildcats been more proficient than their 50 percent free throw shooting (7-for-14 in the first half, 18-for-31 in the game), their lead would have more than their 24.1 percent field goal percentage deserved. The Buffs shot more proficiently in the second half, going 13-of-22 from the field (59.1 percent).
CU led only once in the first 20 minutes, taking an 8-7 advantage on a short Burks jumper with 13:18 left in the half. From there, K-State led by as many as eight points (22-14) before CU connected on five-of-six free throws and got a strong layup from Sharpe to close to within 22-21 with just over a minute remaining before the break.
Sharpe's basket broke a nearly 4-minute field goal drought for CU, which didn't score on a fast-break in the first half and gave up a dozen second-chance points while scoring only two.
Likely looking for some offensive spark and continuity, Boyle went deep into his bench, using 10 players. But the Buffs ended the half with season lows in points, field goals made (six), and no three-pointers in six attempts. CU's 21 first-half points was its lowest total since scoring only nine at Iowa State in a 70-42 loss on Feb. 11, 2009.
The second half had to get better . . . didn't it?
Initially, yes. When Knutson opened the scoring with a three-pointer, the Buffs took their second lead (24-23). Just over 3 minutes later, a Higgins jumper opened the advantage to 28-25.
Then, Burks was assessed his third personal foul while catching an elbow from Curtis Kelly on a defensive rebound. Officials reviewed the call, ruled that Kelly had thrown the elbow intentionally and awarded CU a pair of free throws.
Higgins hit those with 15:58 to play, then Marcus Relphorde scored on a reverse layup. Suddenly, the Buffs had their biggest lead of the game - 32-25. A minute-plus later, Relphorde went to the bench with his fourth foul.
Burks replaced him, almost immediately canned a jumper - putting CU ahead 36-28 - and then collected his fourth foul on what was ruled an intentional elbow throw at Shane Southwell, who hit one of two free throws.
The Wildcats tied the game twice (36-36, 39-39) on a pair of treys by McGruder and took a 47-44 lead on a trey by Will Spradling with 7:39 remaining. CU answered with two free throws and a pull-up jumper by Higgins to go ahead 48-47, but a Spradling free throw - he drew Relphorde's fifth foul - at 5:08 tied the score.
Less than 2 minutes later, CU lost freshman Andre Roberson to fouls, but Jacob Pullen couldn't convert either free throw with 3:31 to play. From there until the buzzer, the lead flipped back and forth five times, with Burks putting the Buffs ahead 54-53 with a pair of free throws, then dunking on a steal for a 56-53 lead.
Pullen's layup pulled K-State to 56-55 with 13.2 seconds left, but Knutson's two free throws restored CU's three-point advantage (58-55) with 11.9 seconds remaining.
Knutson fouled Pullen, who hit one free throw before missing intentionally on the second. Up by three and fouling before a trey is taken normally runs against Boyle's philosophy. "That thing could have very easily backfired on us," he said.
Trailing 58-56, KSU controlled the rebound after Pullen's planned miss and called timeout with 1.1 to play. CU followed with a timeout, set its defense and . . . waited for the officials to waive off McGruder's turnaround trey.
"Our guys battled," Boyle said. "And that's what we have to do every night; it's non-negotiable. If we do that and our players buy into it, which they're starting to, we're going to win our fair share of games."
The Buffs, now 16-10 overall and 5-6 in the conference, don't play again until they visit No. 2 Kansas on Saturday, Feb. 19 (noon, ESPN). KU defeated CU 82-78 on Jan. 25 in the Events Center.