Having never lost in the opening round of the Pac-12 Tournament, the No. 5 seed Colorado Buffaloes men’s basketball team had no plans of deviating from their first-round tourney triumphs this time around against the No. 12 Cal Golden Bears.
Entering the Pac-12 Conference Tournament in Las Vegas, the Buffs and Cal Golden Bears were two of the hottest teams in the Pac-12 conference, with both teams riding three-game win streaks.
Though the Buffaloes boast the better regular season record of the two teams with a 19-11 overall mark (10-8 Pac-12), Cal (8-22, 3-15 Pac-12) won its only three conference games to close out the season on a hot-handed high note.
Most notable of their three wins to end the campaign, was the Golden Bears’ big upset over the Pac-12-leading Washington Huskies, giving Cal the claim of being one of only three Pac-12 teams to beat the high-flying Huskies this season. An upset like that can give a team some confidence, and confidence truly is everything in sport.
Despite this, the Buffaloes outlasted the confident Cal club to survive the tourney’s opening round, 56-51.
“I’m proud of these guys and they’ve shown great progress through the year,” said head coach Tad Boyle. “And I know they are hungry. They’re not satisfied with where we are right now. We just have to continue to get better, and we’ll do that tomorrow.”
It certainly seemed as if there wouldn’t be a tomorrow for Colorado at times. From the jump, it appeared the Buffaloes were doomed for an early exit after Cal got off to a quick 9-3 lead less than five minutes after the opening tip-off.
But a Cal sequence of two back-to-back airballs and a traveling call put the Buffs back in the game after three-pointer from sophomore guard McKinley Wright IV, who nailed his first three shots from beyond the arc to open the game.
After an early explosive offensive output by the Golden Bears, California dramatically slowed its pace and went nearly five minutes without scoring a basket. In the meantime, the Buffaloes went on a 13-2 run that ran from about the 12-minute mark of the first half, down to the last four minutes before halftime.
Those final four points of that Colorado 13-2 run came from freshman guard Daylen Kountz, who went for back-to-back dunks within the matter of seconds to give the Buffs a 23-14 lead, forcing a Cal timeout with less than five minutes on the clock. The Buffs’ bench, and their travelling faithful sitting in the section behind them, were on their feet after the strong plays by Kountz.
Following the timeout, Cal collected five points for themselves to pull within five before junior guard Shane Gatling grabbed his first points of the night to make it a 28-19 contest. The Golden Bears, however, had the last laugh of the first half, sinking their fourth three-pointer of the half to cut Colorado’s lead to six heading into the halftime intermission.
The storyline of the first half for the Buffaloes was the unusually woeful performance from their stud sophomore guard/forward Tyler Bey, who entered this game having recorded five straight double-doubles and in eight out of his last 10 games. Bey only managed one point in the form of a free throw in the first half. T
he only stat that Bey led in the game’s first 20 minutes was turnovers with five.
“He puts a lot of pressure on himself. There’s nobody that expects more of himself than Tyler does,” said Boyle. “…We talked about mental toughness a lot, and he did just that. What you have to do this time of year is you have to take a game like this where Tyler was not at his best, and he’s got to put it behind him. I’m going to be positive with him. I try to be positive with all of our guys….Hopefully he can bounce back tomorrow.”
It wasn’t just Bey either. As Boyle said in an interview with the Pac-12 Network at halftime, Colorado could’ve opened a bakery with the number of turnovers it made in the first half.
The Buffs gave away 12 of them in the first 20 minutes compared to Cal’s seven. CU finished the game with a season-high 23 turnovers, while the Bears only gave away 11.
Much like the first half, the second half started pretty poorly for the Buffaloes. A missed three from Wright IV gave the ball to Cal’s freshman forward Connor Vanover, who did not miss his three-point opportunity. Vanover’s three was part of a 7-2 run that the Golden Bears were on to open the second half.
But as he has in many of CU’s games this season, Wright IV took the game in his own hands. The sophomore guard hit his fourth three-pointer of the afternoon just seconds after making a layup. He made all five of the Buffs’ early second-half points to extend Colorado’s lead to 35-31 with five minutes spent in the second half.
“I think we’re fine. Like I said, we were anxious to get out and play,” said Wright IV of the close Cal contest. “And Cal, unlike other teams, their guards come from behind when our bigs catch it in the high post, and that’s something that we weren’t used to…I think we’ll be fine. Tomorrow we’ll be ready to go.”
Colorado capitalized on a couple of shots from beyond the arc to extend its lead to 43-35, burying back-to-back threes from sophomore guard D’Shawn Schwartz and Gatling. A subsequent layup by Wright IV had the Buffs up by 10 with 10 minutes remaining in the game.
It was part of an 8-0 run by Colorado, coupled with a six minute scoreless drought by Cal.
When the Bears finally got back on the board, Schwartz knocked Cal back down by notching his eighth point of the day. He finished the game with 11 and tied his season-high of eight rebounds.
“Before the game, I told [D’Shawn] he’s got to get up at least five threes,” Wright IV said. “He passed up some open ones tonight, but down the stretch he told me he was going to make some big ones, and he did just that. I’m happy for him and [we’ll] just have him keep shooting.”
Cal’s freshman guard Matt Bradley was all over the stat sheet in the ensuing minutes. First, he fouled Kountz, who then missed both of his free shots, before subsequently reeling in Kountz’s free-throw rebound before scoring the Bears’ next five points to pull the team within five of the Buffaloes.
Another Schwartz three-pointer was merely a stop-gap before Bradley hit another one from distance to cut Colorado’s lead to 54-51 with a little less than 90 seconds to go. Bradley was the player of the game for Cal. The freshman led the Golden Bears with 17 points and five rebounds.
The Buffs spent some time in the offensive zone before an errant pass that went out of bounds gave Cal the ball back with under a minute to go. CU would catch a break in its defensive end when the Bears misread a pass and let it slip out of bounds.
In a timeout-filled, anxiety-ridden final 30 seconds, the Buffaloes tried to run out the shot clock before unloading one from deep. For a moment, it looked like they successfully did after McKinley Wright hit a shot clock-beating three from outer space. Only, it didn’t beat the shot clock. After review, it was deemed a shot-clock violation by CU, giving Cal the ball with 14 seconds remaining.
The Bears hit the rim on their last-ditch effort shot attempt from three, and Bey collected his team-leading seventh defensive rebound while being fouled in the process. Bey made both of his free shots to finalize the Buffs’ 56-51 first-round victory.
“Well, that was the epitome of winning ugly, I think [and that’s] probably an understatement,” said Boyle. “…Our program is built on defense and rebounding for a reason. It’s for days like this, games like this, when the offense is not functioning the way we want it to function, that we find a way to win a game, by guarding, by rebounding.”
Colorado now takes on the No. 4 seed Oregon State Beavers on Thursday afternoon at 3:30 p.m. MST.
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