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From press row, Alexis Robinson’s shot looked good. She caught a precise pass from Jamee Swan in the post, and, all alone on the right wing, fired a three that was on line, with perfect spin, but a little too strong. Swan’s offensive rebound and tip-in looked good, too, but it hit the back of the rim and bounced away as time expired.
That’s how basketball is sometimes. Open shots don’t always go in, and when those shots would have won the game or sent it to overtime, it hurts. That was the story of Colorado’s 76-74 loss to Washington in its first conference game of the season. That the Buffs had two open shots to win the game is remarkable considering they trailed by 18 points at halftime, and they couldn’t have asked for any more in the second half except for a better bounce.
“I thought we really grew up in the second half today,” Buffs coach Linda Lappe said. “It’s just too bad that one of those teams and to lose, and even more so that we had to be on the wrong end.”
The Buffs got 19 points each from Swan and guard Kennedy Leonard. Swan added seven rebounds and Leonard dished six assists and grabbed six boards. Robinson scored 13 points, and in the second half she played smothering defense on the Huskies’ Kelsey Plum, the nation’s leading scorer.
Plum had 18 points, her worst outing of the season. Her passing was devastating in the first half as Washington built its lead, but Robinson hounded her into bad shots and uncomfortable decisions. Chantel Osahor and Talia Walton each scored 24 points for the Huskies.
Both teams started ice-cold; Washington shot just 22 percent and Colorado just 25 percent halfway through the first quarter. Then the Huskies caught fire and the Buffs didn’t. Washington used a 13-0 run to blow away a 7-5 Colorado lead. The Huskies made eight straight shots at one point, and they stayed hot throughout the first half. They shot 53 percent from the field and 47 percent from deep and assisted on 11 of their 18 buckets.
Washington’s offense felt unstoppable by the end of the first half. The Huskies got 14 points each from Walton and Osahor. They hit all seven of Washington’s threes in the first half, and Osahor grabbed eight rebounds to compliment her scoring.
Plum had 10 points in the first half, and she controlled the game offensively even if she didn’t dominate it with her scoring. She dished four assists and created many other shots for her teammates by starting creative passing sequences that carved the Buffs apart.
“We still have to get better at scramble situations,” Lappe said. “Those hurt us a lot today. We had people in the right position, but then one player would not trust that their teammate was gonna be there, and we had two players going to the ball and nobody at the basket.”
It didn’t matter if Plum had the ball or not. When she did, she managed the tempo beautifully. She knew when to shoot, when to drive and kick. She hit diving bigs with pinpoint passes and threw lasers out to shooters. Off the ball, she never stopped moving, came out of her cuts decisively and always seemed to know what to do with the ball before she caught it. The Huskies even used her as a decoy — on one inbounds play, Plum cut from the corner to the top of the arc, and Walton slipped into the space Plum just vacated and buried a wide-open three.
The Buffs, conversely, couldn’t pull it together in the first half. They shot just 33 percent and hit only a single triple. Swan shot just 3-of-10 and Leonard was only 2-of-8. They each missed a lot of looks from the paint that they usually hit. Compound that on top of Washington’s offensive explosion, and Colorado trailed by 18 points at halftime, 46-28.
Then the Buffs flipped the switch. Their offensive execution in the third quarter was much crisper than it was in the first two. They cut harder, passed better, and made the shots that they’d missed in the first half. Colorado had as many assists in the third quarter as it did in the entire first half.
The Buffs looked like a completely different defensive team, too. Robinson took over the primary task of guarding Plum, and she hounded her relentlessly. Robinson picked Plum up in the backcourt on almost every Washington position. The only times Robinson was more than a few inches from Plum’s grill was when Colorado switched, which it did on most of Plum’s ball screens in the second half.
“We were relying on Osahor’s player to come over and have to help, and that’s when they were kicking out and finding her for open shots,” Lappe said. “What that allowed everybody to do was stay matched up to theirs a little bit better.”
That negated the disruptive effect that her passing and cutting had on the Buffs’ defense and took the Huskies out of their offensive flow. She only made one shot in the second half, and that came with five minutes left in the fourth quarter.
“I just figured [picking her up in the backcourt] would get her tired, wear her out, stuff like that,” Robinson said. “It worked a little bit, I guess.”
The Buffs pushed the ball in transition off of their defensive stops, and they got the same kinds of quick, open looks that Washington had in the first half. Colorado shot 73 percent in the third quarter and made all four of their triples. It went on a 23-4 run and tied the game at 53. From there, the teams traded baskets, and Leonard nailed a pull-up with a second left in the quarter to give the Buffs a 63-62 lead going into the fourth.
“We were going on runs and they weren’t,” Leonard said. “We were getting stops and scores and they weren’t.”
Colorado and Washington kept going back-and-forth in the fourth quarter. Plum couldn’t find her shot, but she found Walton and Osahor wide open under the basket when the Buffs blew rotations on back-to-back possessions. Those plays gave the Huskies the lead with a minute left, then Robinson fired right back with a three from deep in the left wing that tied the game at 74.
But the nation’s leading scorer wouldn’t go out like that. Plum got into the paint and drew a foul on Swan with 13.5 seconds left, and the 90-percent free-throw shooter was automatic. The Buffs got good looks from Robinson and Swan, but they didn’t go.
“I wanna really challenge Lex not to worry about that last shot,” Lappe said.
“It was a great shot and a great pass,” Robinson said, outwardly not worried. “If it comes down to that again, I’d shoot it again.”
That’s all Colorado can do, too. In the second half, the process was there. Until the final possession, so were the results. And when you do almost everything right and don’t get results, all you can do is keep shooting.
Colorado (5-7, 0-1) continues conference play at home on Monday against Washington State. The game tips off at 8 p.m. and will be broadcast on Pac-12 Mountain.