When the final buzzer sounded, junior point guard Whitney Houston walked up to junior forward Brittany Spears to give her a hug and say a few words.
“I just told her that we got through this and I told her that she’s got to show up every game because we need her,” Houston said. “And she knows that, so that’s what I told her.”
Not only did the Colorado Buffaloes need Spears at the Coors Events Center on Sunday, they needed Houston as well.
Spears’ basket off an inbounds pass tied the game at 52, and Houston followed with the go-ahead lay-up and a three-pointer at the top of the key to cap a 17-0 run as the Buffs rallied past UC Irvine 61-56 in front of 2,546 in the team’s season-opener.
“I think in every huddle, we kept telling ourselves that we were going to come back from this, and to keep our heads up and we were going to take it one possession at a time,” senior guard Bianca Smith said. “We told ourselves we weren’t going to lose this game on our home floor.”
Trailing 52-40 with 6:27 left in the second half, the Buffs revved up for one final push thanks to an unlikely source.
Freshman forward Meagan Malcolm-Peck retrieved Smith’s missed three-pointer, drove the lane for the lay-up and drew the foul. Malcolm-Peck missed the free throw, though. But on the next offensive trip, she rebounded Spears’ miss and found Smith, who nailed the trifecta to cut the Anteaters lead to single digits.
Then, Spears scored the next five points before her and Houston’s heroics at the end. Head coach Kathy McConnell-Miller said heroic acts wouldn’t have been possible if it wasn’t for Malcolm-Peck’s offensive rebounds.
“I like the energy that Meagan Malcolm-Peck brought to the floor,” McConnell-Miller said. “If she is not on that floor, I don’t think we win the game tonight. She got key rebounds, she got key put-backs — I like what she brought.”
That energy McConnell-Miller referred to wasn’t always there for the Buffs. At halftime, CU trailed by 14 points and shot 8-of-28 from the field. Some players attributed the bad start to having butterflies.
“I think it was just first game jitters,” said Spears, who recorded her 16th career double-double with a game-high 18 points and a career-high 14 rebounds. “We were really excited to play. You could tell by everybody’s actions in the locker room. So I guess just the jitters and the excitement and all of that together.”
When the second half began, a different CU team showed up as they came out of the chute with 13 unanswered points. Unfortunately, McConnell-Miller admitted she stuck with the group who got the team back in the game for too long. It cost her.
After CU cut the deficit to a point for the second time in the half, the Anteaters went on a 12-0 run to restore their lead to 13.
But regardless of the great finishing kick, which represented the third-largest halftime deficit CU has overcome, McConnell-Miller has seen this act too many times and would like to stray away from the script.
“I don’t like that this team has, in the past, had that personality of always fighting from behind,” McConnell-Miller said. “We want to be the type of team that gets off to a great start, that leads for the duration of the game and that finishes games playing for 40 minutes.”
The two largest halftime deficits the program came back from to win was 19 against the Washington Huskies on Dec. 21, 1982 and 15 against the Kansas State Wildcats on Jan. 31, 2007.
Smith and Houston were the other Buffs in double figures as they scored 11 apiece. For Houston, it was her first game back after missing last season with a torn anterior cruciate ligament in her left knee. Despite the great play down the stretch, McConnell-Miller prefer to see a more even-keel Houston than an up-and-down one if the Buffs are to avoid another slow start.
“I have seen moments where I have been very surprised how quickly and how effectively she’s come back,” McConnell-Miller said. “We need a more consistent Whitney Houston. When the person who has the ball in their hand the majority of the time has a tendency to disappear, then that’s a concern for us. That’s something we need to address at this point.”
Contact CU Independent Co-Sports Editor Cheng Sio at Cheng.firstname.lastname@example.org.