No. 23 University of Colorado men’s basketball head coach Tad Boyle understands that March college basketball is about “surviving and advancing.” That is exactly what the Buffs did in the Pac-12 tournament semifinals at T-Mobile Arena in Las Vegas Friday night.
With time dwindling and the Buffs tied at 70 with the No. 24 USC Trojans, senior guard D’Shawn Schwartz slammed home a missed jump shot by senior guard McKinley Wright IV to give CU its ultimate lead and a ticket to the Pac-12 championship game.
“That’s a big time play,” Wright said.
Colorado will now face the Oregon State Beavers for a chance to win its first Pac-12 tournament since 2012.
Friday’s matchup between the Buffs and Trojans was a game of runs. There were periods in the game where Colorado was in the driver’s seat, but they let leads slip away.
With 6:50 remaining, the Buffs had a tenuous 58-56 lead in a game that looked like it would come down to the wire. However, they went on a 10-0 run to take a seemingly secure 68-56 lead with 3:54 remaining.
Senior forward Jeriah Horne scored two of his four second-half three-pointers during the run. He added another jumper, and junior forward Evan Battey scored to give the Buffs a 12-point lead. Horne’s offense helped the Buffs keep the lead in the second half, as he finished with 19 points in the contest. Battey had six points to go along with six rebounds.
Still, USC had one last push in them. The Trojans went on a 14-2 run to tie the game at 70 with 36 seconds left. USC made all five field goals they attempted during that span. Colorado switched to a zone defense late in the game, and it opened shots for USC senior guard Tahj Eaddy. He had nine of his 11 points in the sequence for the Trojans.
The Buffaloes were led by Wright, who asserted himself on the offensive end to start the game after an uncharacteristic performance Thursday night against Cal. As a team, Colorado had a much better start against USC compared to Thursday night’s game. CU went on a 17-0 run to take a 20-6 lead.
Still, all was not perfect for the Buffaloes. Wright took an elbow to the head from USC senior forward Chevez Goodwin with 13:49 remaining in the first half. Wright was helped to the locker room by two others. Thankfully for Colorado, Wright was okay and checked back into the game at the 7:08 mark of the first half.
“I knew if McKinley Wright could come back, he would come back,” Boyle said.
Redshirt freshman guard Keeshawn Barthelemy filled Wright’s shoes effectively during Wright’s absence. He asserted himself on the offensive end, scoring all eight of his points during the stretch Wright was out.
Once Wright returned, he picked up where Barthelemy left off. Wright had 16 points in the first half despite being in the locker room for 6:41 of game time. He attacked on offense throughout the night, finishing with 24 points on 9-of-16 shooting. He tied his career-high with four three-pointers in the game.
The Buffaloes led by as many as 15 during the first half. Despite controlling play through the first half, Colorado only had a single-digit lead of 39-30 at halftime.
USC freshman forward Evan Mobley kept the Trojans in the game in the first half, scoring 17 of the Trojans’ 30 points. Mobley finished with 26 points in the game and had his best performance against the Buffs all season.
As USC slowly chipped away at the lead, Colorado could have folded down the stretch, but the team was able to keep calm even as USC made its final push. Boyle praised his group after the game.
“We don’t panic, and we don’t get our heads down,” Boyle said. “This team has a resiliency and resolve and fight that is fun to be around.”
The Buffaloes will have to show that same resolve in the Pac-12 championship game on Saturday at 8:30 p.m. MST. Their opponent, the fifth-seeded Beavers, upset the number-one seed, Oregon, in their semifinal matchup on Friday.
“It isn’t going to be easy, but we got the parts and pieces,” Wright said.
Wright added that the team was screaming “one more” after beating the Trojans. They will get their chance to win one more and become Pac-12 champions.
Contact CU Independent staff writer Eric Bean at firstname.lastname@example.org.