No. 24 Colorado (18-5, 7-3 Pac-12) returned to action after its recent L.A. road trip to face the California Bears at home on Thursday night. The Buffaloes were able to hold on in a hard-fought battle at the CU Events Center, winning 71-65.
The Cal Bears, 10-12 (4-5 Pac-12), came into the game off a big win over the Oregon State Beavers and were trying to make it two in a row against CU. The Buffaloes split their games in Los Angeles, losing to UCLA 68-72 while beating USC 78-57.
The Buffs have been leaning on their star junior point guard McKinley Wright IV who has played heavy minutes in the last two games and tonight was no different. Colorado head coach Tad Boyle’s decision to play Wright turned out to be successful as he played a whopping 34 minutes and scored 17 points to go along with six rebounds and four assists.
The Bears looked dominant for the first 10 minutes of play, starting the game 6-of-6 from the field. The Buffaloes were able to keep pace, however with a great showing on the offensive glass. They had a 5-0 offensive rebound advantage early in the game and continued pounding the glass, winning the rebound battle 32-23 even as the size disadvantage that has been problematic for CU all year.
The game was back and forth for the majority of the first half with the game tied going into the break, 28-28. Cal ended the half like it started, making four of their last five field goals. The Buffs struggled from the field in the first half, going 2-of-13 from downtown while also giving up a 66% 3-point percentage to Cal. The lack of ball movement in the first half was the main cause of concern for the Buffs.
“Our first-half defense was terrible, I think at halftime they were shooting 67%,” Wright said. “I don’t know the last time that happened to us but that’s an area we got to be more locked in at.”
Wright discussed the disappointing defense and that echoed throughout the team, including Boyle who was upset at the Buffs disregarding their knowledge of the Cal players as they allowed Cal to shoot 56% from the field and 54% from three-point land.
“Yeah, we came out bad, we came out of the gate and they scored every possession,” Boyle said. “We didn’t know that Austin could get downhill and make plays in the lane, which was in the scouting report — that’s the lack of attention to detail I’m talking about.”
Junior guard/forward Tyler Bey was Mr. Dependable all night for the Buffaloes, as he led all scorers with 21 points and turned in a double-double behind his 10 rebounds, good for his eighth of the season.
Despite the defensive lapses causing the game to be closer than it should have been, an 11-2 run by CU gave the Buffs a lead midway through the second half. The run included an alley-oop dunk and deep three from junior guard D’Shawn Schwartz that got the crowd fired up. Although, the Bears crawled back as the game ended up tied with six minutes to play in the game.
“You have got to be able to make plays at this time of the year, everybody knows everybody,” Boyle said. “Cal knows who Colorado is and what we run; we have 23 games in the books and when they scout us, they know what we do and what we like to do.”
With the game tied going into crunch time, Wright and senior guard Shane Gatling hit back to back threes, forcing Cal to call a timeout with about three minutes to go. The Buffs were able to hold on to the lead from there, controlling the game and hitting their free throws to avoid the upset.
Schwartz finished the game with 14 points on 5-of-7 shooting, as well as a career-high four assists. Gatling contributed 10 points and also had four assists, highlighted by his feed to Schwartz in the second half for a dramatic alley-oop.
The Pac-12 Conference guarantees no easy wins and Cal showed that on Thursday as they made CU earn a home vistory. The Buffs will have to grind one out again this weekend as they take on Stanford, which has been playing very well as of late, sporting a 16-5 record.
“We have got to protect our home floor,” Boyle said. “We better be better against Stanford than we were today.”
Colorado will look to beat Stanford to extend their win streak to three on Saturday, Feb. 8 at 4:00 p.m. MST. For students, come to the game early with your Buff One Card and get free Raising Cane’s fried chicken.