Those familiar with Colorado Buffaloes head coach Tad Boyle should be well-versed in hearing a key ingredient that he’s repeatedly said defines a good basketball team: mental toughness.
The Buffaloes held on to defeat the University of Nebraska Omaha Mavericks Friday night at the CU Events Center, 79-75, in a down to the wire contest that epitomized such toughness.
“[We] found a way to win,” Boyle said. “[We] found a way to buck up and get stops when we needed to get stops … this was a good game for us at this point in the season. We were tested [and] our backs were against the wall…we can learn from that and hopefully gain some confidence.”
Colorado did not get off to the start that it was hoping. Turnovers and sloppy play defined the initial minutes of the game and by the 15:32 mark, CU trailed 11-6.
But at that point, Colorado mounted a 7-0 stretch, taking a 13-11 lead with 12:15 to go before halftime behind four free throws from senior guard Namon Wright and a three-pointer from junior forward Lucas Siewert.
From there, the game stayed a one-possession affair until unior guard Deleon Brown hit his only basket of the game, a three-pointer with 3:47 to go before halftime, giving Colorado a 29-24 lead.
Even in defeat, the Mavericks should be commended for their effort. Despite being down 33-29 at halftime and despite the multiple times in the game when Colorado seemed poised to establish a lead of relatively comfortable proportions, they refused to go down quietly.
In the end, two free throws with around seven seconds to play from sophomore guard McKinley Wright IV gave CU all the cushion it needed, as the Buffs pulled out the victory, avoiding what would have been a hugely deflating non-conference loss early in the season.
“We have to be ready to take a team’s best shot and [tonight] I think that was [the Mavs’] best shot,” Boyle said after the game. “It was good to be in this kind of game where we were tested down the stretch.”
Siewert was instrumental in keeping Colorado afloat as the game progressed in the second half.
To begin the final 20 minutes of play, the Buffs got to work right off the bat, quickly establishing a 40-32 lead by the 18:28 mark. But over the next 2:32, Omaha tied the game, going on an 8-0 run.
Siewert gave the Buffaloes a few breaths of life, hitting two back-to-back three-pointers and a layup for CU in just over two minutes, as both teams struggled for the lead.
He was tied for the team lead with 16 points; Siewert made 6-of-10 shots from the floor and was the Buffs’ primary sharpshooter from long range, sinking 4-of-6 shots.
“He’s doing some really good things and he’s really coming into the player we thought he could [become],” said Boyle.
Sophomore guard/forward Tyler Bey also scored 16 points for the Buffs while snagging seven rebounds. His 29 minutes and 37 seconds on the court led Colorado, while his consistency throughout the game — eight points in the first half and eight in the second — was key in CU’s victory.
Friday night featured a rare game where Wright IV wasn’t at his best. He committed five turnovers in the game — CU surrendered a whopping 16 in total — and had a relatively slow start.
Wright IV still contributed 13 points to the Buffs’ effort, but in the end, his teammates rose to the occasion: excluding Wright IV, three of the four Buffaloes starters scored in double digits.
“We weren’t great from the start … I think it started with my energy and effort and I wasn’t fully there tonight,” Wright IV said after the game. “I wasn’t myself. Five turnovers is not who I am. In order for us to win, I can’t do that. It won’t happen again.”
Ultimately, the Buffaloes found a way to win despite a less-than-ideal performance from Wright IV.
“Tonight was not McKinley’s night,” Boyle said. “This team needs to figure out how to play when he’s not at his best … we rely a lot on McKinley and sometimes a bit too much. The beauty of this team is we have a lot of guys who can affect the game in different ways.”
Take the Buffs’ lone senior: Wright. For the second straight game, he’s come off the bench and delivered a double-digit scoring performance for Colorado. Friday, he finished with 11 points.
Boyle has mentioned that he’s made it clear to Wright about his potential role on the 2018-19 Buffaloes: the better you play, the more minutes you’ll see. So far, Wright has proved a dependable sixth man for Boyle’s Buffaloes.
After the Mavericks had tied the Buffs and the score read 40-40 with 15:56 to play, no team took a greater ead than three points until a brief 74-70 advantage that the Buffaloes held with just 1:51 remaining, after Wright IV drove through traffic and hit a layup.
It was a tense rest of the game for Colorado. With 30 seconds left, the Buffaloes led 77-72 but Omaha’s Zach Johnson hit a borderline miraculous three-pointer with 16 seconds left, bringing the Mavs within two points.
The Buffs got the ball inbounded with time running out but Wright IV, much to the chagrin of the Buffaloes faithful, was called to have stepped out of bounds near the scorer’s table, and down just two points, with 13 seconds left, the Mavericks got the ball back.
But Johnson’s magic had run out — he lost control of the ball, which went out of bounds near the CU band. Shortly after inbounding the ball, Wright IV was quickly fouled with seven seconds left.
He hit both of his free throws, and a last-ditch effort by Omaha to get a shot off failed, as CU hung on to win, 79-75, moving to 2-0 on the year in the process.
“It helps us to [face] some adversity and to get a nice close game before we get on the road,” said sophomore guard/forward D’Shawn Schwartz, who dropped 15 in the win. “We have to make sure that we realize that everything’s not sweet.”
The Buffaloes will hit the road this upcoming week for a showdown with the University of San Diego on Tuesday, Nov. 20. Colorado and the Toreros tipoff at 8 p.m. MST.
Contact CU Independent Head Sports Editor Justin Guerriero at firstname.lastname@example.org and follow him on Twitter @TheHungry_Hippo.