BOULDER, Colo. — The Colorado Buffaloes’ road woes of a week ago disappeared Thursday night in the Coors Events Center against Southern California . . . sort of.
Once again, CU lost a large lead – but this time held on to a game. The Buffs outlasted the Trojans 66-60 for their first Pac-12 Conference win of the season and set up a get-to-.500 date with UCLA on Saturday.
“Hopefully our guys understand we have to play for 40 minutes,” CU coach Tad Boyle said. “We have to do it Saturday or UCLA will come in here and beat us . . . this is not rocket science.”
Improving to 8-0 at home this season and 39-4 at the CEC under Boyle, the Buffs (11-4, 1-2) used a 23-5 run in the first half to overtake the Trojans (6-10, 1-2) and avoid their first 0-3 conference start since the 2008-09 season.
CU encountered the same problem with prosperity it had last week in conference-opening road losses at No. 3 Arizona and Arizona State. The Buffs were outscored 20-9 over the game’s final 8 minutes, helping them squander a 17-point second-half lead. Plus, they hit only 14 of 26 free throws and were outrebounded 39-30.
But the Trojans provided an assist in the turnover department, committing a season-high 23 that the Buffs converted into 21 points. A chest injury slowed Trojans point guard Jio Fontan; he got 16 first-half minutes (no points, three assists, three turnovers) but didn’t play in the second half. CU had 16 fast break points and outscored USC 34-20 in the paint.
“In league play, you figure out a way to win when you don’t play your best basketball,” Boyle said. “The first half I was pleased; our second half wasn’t very good . . . thank God for Sabatino Chen and Josh Scott; those two kids really picked us up when we needed it.”
Scott, the 6-10 freshman, led the Buffs with 14 points on six-of-seven shooting from the field. Chen, a senior on a mission, had 10 points and four steals. Each of his five field goals were of the pick-the-Buffs-up variety.
CU sophomore Askia Booker added 12 points and junior Andre Roberson had 11. Boyle didn’t start Roberson for the first time this season, keeping him out for 4 1/2 minutes as a penalty for the player being late to a team function.
“He overslept . . . it’s not a big deal,” said Boyle, who started freshman Xavier Johnson in Roberson’s place.
Eric Wise led USC with 16 points, while J.T. Terrell added 11 – all in the second half – and Byron Wesley and DeWayne Dedmon added 10 each. The 7-foot Dedmon also collected a game-best nine rebounds.
Roberson entered the game with 15:30 left in the first half and CU up 8-6. That’s the way the game’s first 8 minutes went, with six lead changes and five ties – and USC made the initial attempt to pull away.
The Trojans, who had beaten Stanford and lost to California in league play, might have felt good after a 7-0 run that opened their largest lead of the first half – 17-10 – with 12:01 left before halftime.
But it paled alongside what was coming from the Buffs. After a three-pointer by Eli Stalzer from the right corner turned them on, they stayed hyperactive for the rest of the half and were up by 15 (41-26) by intermission.
Over the half’s final 12 minutes, CU outscored USC 31-9, limiting the Trojans to four field goals during that span. The Buffs’ take-control run – 23-5 – occurred immediately following a banked-in jumper by Dedmon that gave the Trojans their seven-point advantage.
During that surge, Scott collected seven of his team-high 11 first-half points. All 10 players used by Boyle in the first 20 minutes scored. “Our bench was good – and that’s a positive sign,” he said. “But we have to get better.”
But as dominant as the Buffs appeared over the first half’s final 12 minutes, that dominance disappeared in the opening 5 minutes of the second half and again in the final 8 minutes. The Trojans outscored them 10-2 to open the final 20 minutes and cut their 15-point deficit to seven (43-36).
If CU had established any bad traits on its two-game Arizona swing, the most apparent was letting leads wither. It was something the Events Center crowd (10,344) had no taste for – and neither did Boyle.
Chen surmised the Buffs might be losing leads because they get “too comfortable and relaxed” when their opponents fall behind and “get in desperation mode . . . it’s hard to say.”
But Boyle wasn’t buying the comfortable angle: “I’m not comfortable on the bench (and) until our guys play for 40 minutes we’re not going to beat good teams . . . why (his players) would feel comfortable, I don’t know.”
After a sheer hustle play by Chen – he made a diving steal, got to his feet, retrieved the ball and drove for a layup for CU’s first second half points – the Buffs temporarily righted themselves.
Over the next 7 1/2 minutes, the Buffs held the Trojans to a pair of free throws and outscored them 14-2 to take a 17-point (57-40) lead – their largest of the night to that point – with 7:55 remaining.
But as they did in the desert – losing leads of 17 and 13 points respectively at Arizona and Arizona State – the Buffs had great difficulty staying in control.
The Trojans pulled to within 63-55 with 1:31 to play, then 64-57 with 38 seconds left. After Booker converted a layup (66-57), Byron Wesley answered with a three-pointer. It was 66-60 . . . and fortunately for the Buffs, time ran out on the Trojans.
“We’ll learn from this like we learn from every game we play,” Boyle said. “These young guys have got to grow up quick before Saturday at noon.”