Snubbed by the NCAA selection committee last year, then picked to finish next-to-last as a new member of the Pac-12, Colorado had all kinds of grudges going into its matchup against league powerhouse Arizona.
Freshman Spencer Dinwiddie scored 14 points, Carlon Brown added 13 and the Buffaloes won 53-51 in the league’s tournament final Saturday to earn the school’s first NCAA tournament bid since 2003.
”If you believe in destiny, you believe in the Colorado Buffaloes because it was meant to be for us,” coach Tad Boyle said.
The Buffaloes (23-11) became the first No. 6 seed to win the tournament title since Southern California in 2009 by winning four games in four days, the first time Colorado has done that in the program’s 111-year history. The Buffs, who left the Big 12 after last season, were playing in their first tourney final since 1990, when they lost to Oklahoma for the Big Eight championship.
A year ago, Boyle hosted six seniors in his living room for the NCAA selection show. The Buffs never got called, though.
”It was the hardest day. We got shut out. That inspired us,” said Boyle, whose current team dedicated the title game to last year’s snubbed seniors. ”This team wasn’t going to be denied.”
The Buffs left the door open in the closing seconds, though. Nate Tomlinson turned the ball over and Austin Dufault missed two free throws.
”It would have been nice if we could end the game a little bit smoother,” Dufault said. ”If I could have knocked down a couple free throws or caught that pass. But we went down to the other end. Once again, we just dug in defensively and got a stop.”
Kyle Fogg scored 14 points, but his off-balance 3-pointer to win missed at the buzzer for fourth-seeded Arizona (23-11). Fogg was visibly upset as he sat at his locker with his jersey pulled over his face.
”To have the ball in Kyle’s hands is something that’s been good for our team,” Arizona coach Sean Miller said. ”The last play didn’t win or lose the game. There were so many plays throughout the course of the game that hurt us.”
Frontcourt mates Solomon Hill and Jesse Perry had teamed with Fogg to score 50 of Arizona’s 72 points in a semifinal win over Oregon State. Hill came on stronger in the second half and finished with 13 points, while Perry added 11 in the Wildcats’ second straight two-point loss in the finals. A year ago, they were beaten by Washington in overtime.
”Today was much different because it meant the NCAA tournament versus no on that,” Miller said.
The Buffs lack any tradition in their new conference, but they didn’t lack fans. Their 50-strong student section, flown in by the school, was loud all week, and they proudly displayed a homemade sign reading Welcome to Coors Event Center West. The team shared cutting down the net with some of the students.
”They’re a big part of it,” Boyle said.
Brown rewarded the Buffs’ backers with 48 seconds left. The senior from nearby Riverside, Calif., powered around Jordin Mayes and slammed down a windmill dunk, eliciting raucous cheers as Arizona called timeout.
”That’s something I’ve done before, so it wasn’t too exciting for me,” he said. ”I just knew I wanted to put an exclamation on the game and make sure we won. Wasn’t going to be lackadaisical, so I just attacked the basket and jumped with all my might.”
Hill’s layup drew the Wildcats to 53-51 with 20 seconds left. But Fogg’s shot was left of the basket and time expired, setting off a wild celebration on court.
”I told these guys at halftime, there is nothing like the feeling of winning a tournament championship and cutting down those nets and getting all this free gear,” Brown said, laughing.
”I know what this program has been through the last four years. It wasn’t always like this. Those guys deserved it, and I wanted to win it for them and I wanted to win it for coach.”
Colorado opened the second half on an 18-8 run, with Dinwiddie and Brown combining for 10 points, to extend the Buffs’ lead to 48-36. Fogg, Hill and Perry accounted for all of Arizona’s points.
Buoyed by their experienced trio, the Wildcats outscored the Buffs 9-2 to close to 50-45.
”We got a lot of one-on-one plays and it took us a while to get it together,” Perry said. ”Once we did, it was pretty much too late.”
Both teams struggled at the start, combining to miss 15 of 21 shots. The Buffs led most of the half, although not by more than five, before Arizona took its first lead with 5:56 to play in the half on a 3-pointer by Fogg. The Buffs were up by two at the break and they stretched their lead early in the second half.
The Buffs have notched 47 wins in two seasons under coach Tad Boyle.
It may have been the league’s last tourney at Staples Center. After 11 years, the event could move to Las Vegas.