The Colorado Buffaloes traveled to the Bay Area for two games against Stanford and the University of California before the start of the new year. The road trip marked the start of conference play for Colorado, as the rest of their schedule will be against Pac-12 teams.
At Stanford on Thursday night, the Buffs were able to complete a thrilling comeback thanks to K.J. Simpson’s 31 points and game-winning shot, ending 73-70. On Saturday night, Colorado fell just short to Cal, losing 76-80 despite being down by 20 points with two minutes left. Simpson was also the star of that game as he finished with 25 points, scoring 14 of them in the final minutes.
It was the K.J. Simpson show for the Buffaloes in Northern California, as the sophomore scored 56 points in two games, putting him second in the Pac-12 in scoring with a season average of 18.7 per game. At Sanford, Simpson also finished with a game-high seven rebounds and four assists, doing everything on the court for Colorado.
“K.J. is showing big-time growth,” Boyle said on Thursday night. “He’s mature and the one thing you don’t have to worry about with him is toughness. He’s got toughness; he’s got grit. He’s got what it takes to be a big-time guard in this league and he showed it tonight.”
Luke O’Brien and Lawson Lovering were also major factors in the Buffs squeezing out a win against the Cardinal. O’Brien finished with 12 points and six rebounds, going 4 of 6 shooting and tying his season total of threes. Lovering also played great as he had 10 points and five rebounds, consistently cutting to the basket for open layups. Considered more of a role player on the team, the big man showed he could also find an offensive rhythm.
“KJ was terrific. Obviously, he was the player of the game, there’s no question,” said Boyle. “You look at Luke O’Brien and Lawson Lovering — they had their best games as Buffs. Not even close. I was really proud of those two kids.”
Their game in Stanford was tight all night with both teams swapping the lead back and forth, yet going into the half the Buffs were down 33-37. Coming out of the locker room, K.J. Simpson was not going to let his teammates down, as he scored 18 points in the second half, making eight of his nine free throws and scoring the last 11 points for the Buffaloes. The shot that won the game for Colorado came with 17.6 seconds left, as Simpson drove to the lane with two Stanford defenders on him, making a difficult layup that secured the win for the Buffs.
“I’ve been watching a lot of film with the coaching staff, just to see where I could get to, reading the defense, how they’re playing,” Simpson said. “Today was just one of those days. On that last one I just wasn’t looking for a call, I wanted to get to the basket.”
With their 73-70 win against Stanford, the Buffs’ win streak increased to five games in a row. Despite the poor shooting, Colorado was able to limit turnovers and score when they needed to most.
“We really got on them at halftime and challenged them,” Boyle said about his players. “Boy did they respond. Our defense in the second half really cranked up.”
After one comeback on Thursday, Colorado played the one-win University of California Golden Bears on Saturday. With only one full day of rest, along with Jalen Gabbidon being out with a leg injury, Colorado saw themselves behind early, and despite a 20-point comeback in the last two minutes, fell short 80-76.
The Buffs saw themselves down early against Cal, as they had three quick turnovers and missed six of their first three-point attempts. Counteracting their grim performance, Cal started out hot, making their last six shots of the half, going up 39-27 at the break.
“If you give guys shots and they start making them, they start believing,” Boyle said about his team’s defense. “It changes everything.”
With no player scoring more than six points after twenty minutes, and Colorado only making one of their 12 3-pointers, things were not looking well. Despite a hard landing at the end of the first half, K.J. Simpson stayed in the game, in search of another Buffalo rally.
Trends of the first half continued in the second, as with two minutes left the Buffs were down 56-74, still shooting poorly and letting the Bears find easy baskets. Seemingly out of nowhere, Colorado went on a 20-5 run to bring the lead all the way down to three, thanks to 16 of them coming from K.J. Simpson. After missing a shot and being forced to foul, the Buffaloes lost 76-80 despite a two-minute stretch where Colorado seemed to make every shot and force every turnover possible.
By the final whistle, Simpson had 25 points, 21 of which came in the second half, along with five assists and three rebounds. Regardless of the 21 turnovers the Buffaloes forced, Cal shot almost 60% in the game, and had five players in double-digit scoring.
“Let’s just talk about one of the most pathetic defensive performances in Colorado basketball history,” Boyle said after the game. “I’ve only been part of it now for 12 and a half years but I can’t think of a more disappointing defensive performance than what I saw tonight. It didn’t matter what we did or what we ran, we couldn’t stop them.”
Despite Simspon’s effort, along with 17 points and four rebounds from J’Vonne Hadley, Colorado couldn’t get the job done in what was supposed to be one of their least challenging games of the season. It was too little too late as the Bears played an all-around better game, and were able to just barely hold off the Buffaloes thanks to their great shooting night.
“You know the old saying, ‘Don’t say hello when it’s time to say good-bye,'” Boyle said. “That’s what these guys did. They said a lot when it was too late. Too little too late.”
Going into the game at Berkeley, the Buffaloes had the chance to move up in the Pac-12 standings and extend their winning streak to seven games, but the lack of rest and preparation stopped that plan in its tracks. Now 1-3 in conference play, Colorado can’t afford to lose any more games like they did on Saturday.
“It falls on me,” Boyle said. “The responsibility is mine and that’s where I’m disappointed in myself because I haven’t gotten through to these guys yet. (But) I’m not going to change what I believe in. I’m not going to change how I coach. I have to do it better. I have to be a better coach than I’ve been. Today’s just as much on me as it is on our players.”
After going 1-1 on their first California road trip of the season, the 9-6 Colorado Buffaloes return to Boulder for a big home stretch and some much-needed rest. The Buffaloes’ next game is on Thursday, Jan. 5, as they host the Oregon Ducks at 7 p.m. MST and the CU Events Center.
Contact CU Independent Staff Writer Eli Gregorski at firstname.lastname@example.org.