The sixth seeded Colorado Buffaloes hosted eleventh seeded Washington State in the first round of the 2020 Pac-12 Men’s Basketball Tournament at T-Mobile Arena in Las Vegas Wednesday night. Following the postponement of the 2019-20 NBA season earlier in the day on Wednesday, the Pac-12 announced starting effective Thursday fans will no longer be allowed in the arena due to the spread of the COVID-19 coronavirus. Wednesday’s matchup between the Buffs and Cougars would be the last with fans in attendance.
Washington State, led by sophomore forward CJ Elleby and junior guard Isaac Bonton, crushed the Buffaloes 80-65. The Cougars advance and will take on three seeded Arizona State Thursday night.
Senior guard Shane Gatling opened the scoring with a midrange jumper following a defensive deflection. Sophomore forward CJ Elleby responded for the Cougars draining back-to-back threes for Washington State. The Cougars led 8-6 at the under-16 media timeout. After sophomore forward Tyler Bey scored through contact, Elleby splashed home another three for Washington State, giving him three triples in the early going.
Colorado head coach Tad Boyle immediately referred to Elleby following the loss. The early spark he provided gave Washington State a superior energy level for the entirety of the contest.
“Credit to Washington State, they were the better team tonight,” Boyle said. “CJ Elleby had a heck of a game. Obviously he came out on fire, hit his first couple shots and got himself going and ended up with 30.”
Junior guard Maddox Daniels helped to trim the Cougar lead after sinking a pair of free throws at the line. Despite shooting just 4-of-13 from the field after eight minutes, the Buffs only trailed by three. Junior guard Isaac Bonton joined Elleby in the scoring column for Washington State after a solo 5-0 run. The Cougars led 19-11 at the 11:09 mark of the first half.
Colorado’s inability to contain Elleby and Bonton early in the first half cumulated in a double-digit deficit for the Buffs. Fouling jump shooters was an issue for the Buffaloes as well, giving away free points at the free throw line. Boyle said in spite of the Buffaloes inefficiency on offense, it’s their inability to get stops that has stood out during this five-game losing streak.
“We’ve been talking now for the last five games how our defense has not been good enough to win games, whether it’s first half, second half, full ball game, it doesn’t matter,” Boyle said. “Tonight they (Washington State) shot 70 percent in the second half. We could never get back in the game because we could never get stops, we couldn’t claw back.”
Junior guard McKinley Wright IV looked to provide a spark for the Buffaloes ripping the ball from a Washington State Cougar and sprinting down the floor eventually creating a scoring opportunity for junior guard D’Shawn Schwartz.
The junior from Colorado Springs once appeared as if he was on the verge of the breakout season. Now, Schwartz seems to have lost confidence in his shooting ability. Boyle said he didn’t want to single Schwartz out, but agreed it’s a self-confidence issue.
“Confidence is a real delicate thing as a coach,” Boyle said. “I’ve really tried to be positive with D’Shawn (Schwartz). He’s got to believe in himself. It’s not just D’Shawn (Schwartz), it’s a multitude of guys. You look at the stat sheet tonight and thank god Tyler (Bey) and McKinley (Wright IV) were on our team. It would have been really, really ugly. It was ugly, but it would have been really ugly. We’ve got to have some guys step up.”
Lack of ball movement limited Colorado’s effectiveness on offense in the first half, recording just one assist as a team. Bey led all scorers for the Buffaloes with seven, Elleby had 15 for the Cougars. Washington State led by ten at the intermission.
Elleby picked up where he left off for the Cougars draining a three to open the second half scoring. The sophomore drained yet another three following a pair of free throws from Bey. Elleby and Bonton were lethal for Washington State early on in the second frame, dropping three combined triples to extend the Cougar lead to 18 at the 17:40 mark.
Bey continued to be a reliable option for the Buffs in the second half, getting to the free throw line after drawing contact. Colorado’s ability to draw fouls aided their offensive attack, but defensively the errors continued to mount. Following a four point play and another three from Elleby, the Cougars led by 21 with just over 12 minutes left.
Colorado’s lack of efficiency on offense has impacted their defensive effort over the past five games, which Bey touched on following the loss.
“I feel like when we miss shots, we put our heads down and it affects our defense,” Bey said. “But we can’t have that. We’ve got to just keep our composure and just move on from it. That’s something we’ve got to work on.”
While Boyle commended Colorado’s ability to get inside and force defensive fouls, the deficiencies on defense were too much to overcome.
“We did a great job, I thought, of getting to the free throw line tonight,” Boyle said. “We shot 32 free throws and holy cow, we haven’t done that in a long time. We attacked. But, the bottom line is we couldn’t get stops when we had to get stops and our ball screen defense, we tried three different coverages all night and none of them were really effective.”
Wright IV splashed home a three to cut the lead to 16 at the under 12 media timeout. The junior from North Robbinsdale, Minnesota scored six straight for the Buffaloes, cumulating in a 7-0 run. Bonton responded for the Cougars scoring on a driving layup. A pair of free throws and a jumper from Elleby gave him 30 points on the night and pushed the lead back to 17. It seemed as though every time Colorado looked like they were going to put a run together, the Cougars had a response.
Boyle applauded the efforts of his two all-Pac-12 juniors, but said the issues with this team run deeper than individual players.
“I thought Tyler (Bey) and McKinley (Wright IV) played their hearts out,” Boyle said. “They’re two all-conference guys and deservedly so, but our team has lost it’s identity. We’ve lost a fight, we’ve lost a toughness that we’ve got to get back.”
Elleby and Bonton combined for 45, and the eleventh seeded Cougars advanced to the second round of the tournament with a 84-65 victory over Colorado. The Buffs will now turn their attention to Selection Sunday, where they should hear their name called in the field of 68, despite dropping the last five games, dating back to the senior day loss against UCLA on February 22.
“Thank goodness we played really, really well the first 27 games of the season,” Boyle said. “(We’ve) put ourselves in position I think to be in the postseason, but nothing’s guaranteed until we see our name pop up on Sunday.”
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