ALBUQUERQUE - No NCAA Tournament wins in nearly two decades? No problem. No Big Dance experience since 2003? No big deal.
Somebody say the Pac-12 Conference champions didn't belong? Nobody told the No. 11 seed Colorado Buffaloes, who started fast, played furiously and finally waved goodbye Thursday night to No. 6 seed UNLV, eliminating the Runnin' Rebels, 68-64.
It wasn't easy, but as CU coach Tad Boyle has seen over the past 10 days, his team doesn't do easy. Up by 20 points with 13:08 to play, CU saw its lead evaporate to 57-55 in the last 4 minutes after a 20-4 UNLV run, then to 67-64 in the final 8.4 seconds.
But as they did last week in winning the Pac-12 title, the Buffs held on - sometimes in spite of themselves. They committed a season-high 23 turnovers, yielded a season-high 14 steals and missed 10 free throws. In the four-day, four-game run in Los Angeles, CU averaged 8.5 turnovers and stayed in single-digit in errors for four games - a school record.
"I guess looking back, NCAA Tournament games shouldn't be easy, but we didn't handle our lead in the second half as well as we'd like to," Boyle said after congratulating UNLV (23-9) on its first season under coach Dave Rice. "But one thing about our team, we've shown toughness and resiliency all year . . . we found a way to do it."
The victory at "The Pit" - which had a loud and sizeable CU contingent among the crowd of 11,839 - advances the surprising Buffs (24-11) to the NCAA Tournament's third round on Saturday. They play No. 3 seed Baylor, which held on to eliminate No. 14 South Dakota State 68-60 in Thursday night's first game.
No. 5 seed Vanderbilt meets No. 4 seed Wisconsin at 4:10 p.m. Saturday, with the CU-Baylor tipping off at 6:40 p.m. MDT (TNT), or 30 minutes after the first game's conclusion. Saturday's two South Region winners advance to the Sweet 16 next week in Atlanta.
The win in Thursday night's second round was CU's first in NCAA Tournament play since Chauncey Billups' Buffs defeated Indiana 80-62 in the 1997 tournament in Winston-Salem, N.C. CU was eliminated two days later by North Carolina, 73-56.
Boyle said this CU team "found its heart" in L.A., and the Buffs did nothing to lose it in Albuquerque. "We believe in ourselves," said sophomore Andre Roberson, who punched up his 20th double-double (12 points, 16 rebounds) against UNLV. "We believe in everything coach Boyle tells us. We execute our game plan; we try to do our best. Defense and rebounding - that's our motto. Every time we do that, we win games."
Roberson was one of four CU players in double figures, topped by freshman Askia Booker's 16. Senior Austin Dufault added 14 and senior Carlon Brown had 12. Freshman Spencer Dinwiddie finished with nine points, including five-of-seven free throws in the final minute. His foul shot with 5.5 seconds to play gave CU a four-point lead and sealed the win.
After consecutive days of practice that Boyle termed sub-par, he let the Buffs sleep in Thursday morning and pushed breakfast back an hour (10 a.m.). They also skipped their game-day shoot-around, but stayed on schedule with a morning film review of UNLV and a walk-through in one of their hotel's ballrooms.
If that's what it took to reenergize and refocus his team, it worked.
The Buffs got a three-pointer from Brown on their first possession, went up 3-0 and never trailed, although the Runnin' Rebels tightened things up with their full-court pressure in the final 10 minutes. CU committed 14 of its 23 turnovers - worth 18 UNLV points - in the last 20 minutes.
But Boyle settled his team when he needed to with timeouts, and never lost confidence in his players down the stretch. "I trust this team, I really do," he said. "I think we've really found another level since we went to L.A. and did what we did."
CU led by as many as 13 (33-20) after Roberson hit a baseline jumper, his shot capping a 14-5 run that saw CU pull away after UNLV had closed to 19-15. Booker was monstrous during that surge, draining back-to-back treys, following those with a driving layup, then adding a pair of free throws. He finished the half with a game-high 12 points and was the only player on either team in double figures in the first 20 minutes.
From the opening tip, UNLV was defused by CU's defense. Top Runnin' Reb scorers Mike Moser and Chace Stanback went a combined 7-of-27 from the field. "With Chace," said Brown, "we just knew we had to run him off the three-point line . . . so I tried to do my best job of crowding him. With Moser, Andre did a great job crowding him and making sure he didn't get offensive rebounds."
The Runnin' Rebels, who average 23 three-point attempts, shot 16 in the first 20 minutes and made four. But they didn't get the first one until Moser (10 points) connected at the 9:30 mark, and it was only UNLV's fourth field goal in the first 10:30.
The Runnin' Rebs finished the game 9-of-36 from behind the arc, getting four of the treys in the final 10 minutes when they launched their comeback. Rice credited CU for his team's shooting woes: "Tad's defense is extremely good (but) we just missed open looks. We have not shot the ball overly well for about three of the last four weeks."
The Buffs wanted to limit the Runnin' Rebels in transition, and the first half ended with them not scoring a fast break basket and only one for the game. CU held UNLV to 32.4 percent from the field (23-of-71) and also won the rebound battle 46-33. Meanwhile, the Buffs shot 45.8 percent from the field (22-of-48).
In the second half's first 4 minutes, the Buffs came out smokin' and strokin', outscoring the Runnin' Rebels 13-2 to go up by 20. Dufault hit consecutive treys and Brown followed with another on the next possession to send the Buffs ahead 49-29.
Rice called a pair of timeouts during that CU surge, saying later he wanted to motivate his team. UNLV's start to each half wasn't what he wanted, noting the Buffs played the game's first 25 minutes "with a greater sense of urgency than we did. I thought we certainly got off to a rough start."
The Runnin' Rebels got baskets from Oscar Bellfield (10 points) and Anthony Marshall (15) to pull to 49-33, but the Buffs opened another 20-point bulge (53-33) on two of three free throws by Dinwiddie with 13:08 to play.
At the 10-minute mark, CU was up by 17 (53-36). But the Runnin' Rebels began pressing and the Buffs let it bother them. UNLV cut its deficit to five (57-52) on a layup by Marshall with 5:27 to play. The Buffs, who scored just three points during 9-plus minute drought against Arizona in the Pac-12 title game, needed a basket. But they couldn't get it before Hawkins hit another trey from the left corner to bring UNLV to 57-55 - its smallest deficit since 19-15 - and cap a 12-0 run.
CU finally got one point on one of two free throws by Roberson with 3:51 left and went ahead 58-55, then Brown finished a run-out with a dunk to make it 60-55 with 2:31 remaining. Brown's dunk - his third pivotal slam in the postseason - "gave us energy," Roberson said. "We fed off it."
Added Boyle: "That dunk brought our team's energy, confidence back. I wish it would have happened a little sooner rather than later, but it put us up by five. Our guys started believing again."
Marshall sank one of two free throws 15 seconds later (60-56), but Roberson answered by dropping a pair (62-56) with 1:54 showing. A trey by Stanback (eight points) with 8.5 seconds left brought the Runnin' Rebs to 67-64 and prompted a pair of timeouts by Boyle.
"We talked in those timeouts . . . our guys were not handling it (UNLV's pressure) well," he said. "We talked about playing with composure and continuing to attack. Poise and composure down the stretch is what you have to have. We lost it for a minute, but we got it back, and for that I've got to give our guys credit."
Dinwiddie's free throw with 5.5 seconds left pushed the Buffs up by four, out of danger and into Saturday's third round with their first NCAA Tournament win since the Billups Era. "I'm not too big on history," Booker said, "but I'm just happy that we're here and we won."
With one more win, getting big on history would benefit Booker. The Buffs haven't been to a Sweet 16 since the NCAA Tournament expanded to 64, then 68, teams. CU could change that Saturday.