Playing a basketball game at 11 p.m., illogical as it may seem, did not phase the University of Colorado on Monday night. For the second straight game, their opponent made less than 30 percent of its shots, and their four-point halftime lead ballooned into a 90-59 victory against Auburn University.
ESPN’s will is law in college sports, and the network’s 24-hour hoops marathon slated Colorado’s men’s basketball’s tip-off against Auburn to begin on a Monday and end on a Tuesday, at the marathon’s midpoint.
So, two hours from midnight, and one from tipoff, the student section at the Coors Events Center was standing-room-only. The C-Unit hummed with the kinetic energy that one would expect from thousands of college students hyped on caffeine and excitement.
Auburn came out in one of new coach Bruce Pearl’s signature presses, and Colorado uncharacteristically matched them. The Buffs picked the Tigers’ guards up in the backcourt, and Auburn’s bigs had to set picks at half-court to free their ball-handlers. Colorado varied its pressure — first soft, then an aggressive trap — and forced a harried Auburn side into turnovers and rushed shots as the Tigers struggled to break through early.
Colorado had no such trouble. Its offense had a fuller realization of head coach Tad Boyle’s offseason vision than in Friday’s sloppy win against Drexel. Junior forward Xavier Johnson started hot and never cooled off on his way to 17 points and five rebounds. He scored the Buffs’ first five points with a contested layup and a spot-up three from the left corner.
Wes Gordon was similarly unstoppable. He dominated from both blocks early, first with a layup off of an offensive rebound, then a turnaround, fadeaway jumper. The sophomore forward played unquestionably the best game of his career — 16 hard-fought points, 12 rebounds.
“Sometimes he doesn’t realize how good he is and how good he can be,” Boyle said.
Really, though, Auburn had no answer for any of Colorado’s forwards. Junior Josh Scott delivered his typical line — 17 points, nine rebounds. His post defense was stout as always, and he blocked three shots for the second straight game.
“We might have one of the best big-man combos in the country,” senior guard Askia Booker said.
The clock struck midnight during a halftime game of musical chairs, and with it Auburn turned back into a pumpkin. Not immediately, though — it cut Colorado’s lead to two points 20 seconds into the second half, and it stayed within five points for almost eight more minutes.Then the deluge began.
The Buffs led 51-46 with 12:20 remaining when Josh Scott made a pair of free throws to stretch the lead to seven points. Booker followed that with a sequence emblematic of his career. From the top of the arc, he pump-faked, drew a foul and, through contact, hurled up a prayer that banked home off the top of the glass. Booker missed the free throw, but Scott grabbed the offensive board and kicked back to Booker, who hit another jumper.
“Just another shot,” Booker said of the improbable three, the only shot from deep he has made this season.
Boyle shook his head and smiled when asked about the shot.
“He’s an enigma sometimes,” the coach said.
Colorado just kept the points coming. Booker hit two more free throws. Then Johnson scored six straight points — the final two came on a vicious two-handed transition dunk in the face of Tigers freshman forward Jack Purchase. In three minutes, the Buffs had pushed their lead to 66-46.
The crowd lost its mind a little more with each successive bucket. When sophomore guard Jaron Hopkins floated an alley-oop to Gordon that made the score 69-46, the fans exploded in all-out delirium.
Hopkins hit a pair of free throws, and Gordon scored again off of — guess what — an offensive rebound before Auburn finally ended the run. By then, Colorado had scored 24 straight points and the Tigers had missed 17 straight shots. The Buffs ran at will; this was the frenetic, high-possession game that Boyle said he wanted before the season began.
Auburn never closed the gap to less than 25 points after that. Harrell, so solid in the first half, missed all seven of his shots in the second. Pearl sweated profusely through his suit jacket.
Fans began to trickle out with three minutes remaining, but the C-Unit stayed — singing, chanting, yelling — to the end. Then the adrenaline wore off, and suddenly it was 1:30 on a Tuesday morning, and there was a collective realization that everyone had to start their day in six hours, give or take a few.
“Got class tomorrow,” Johnson said, before he corrected himself: “Today.”
Colorado has four days of rest before travelling to Wyoming on Saturday for its first road test. Boyle compared playing the Cowboys to visiting the dentist. Laramie may be hostile — it certainly hasn’t been friendly to the Buffs in recent years — but the fans in Arena Auditorium won’t match the exhausted passion, the frenzied exuberance of the 9,834 who just spent a mad midnight in the Keg.
Contact CU Independent staff writer Tommy Wood at firstname.lastname@example.org