For their final regular season game on Saturday, March 4, the Colorado men’s basketball team defeated the University of Utah, 69-60, at the CU Events Center. The Buffaloes ended the regular season with a 16-15 record overall, and they currently stand at 9th position in the Pac-12 conference rankings with 8-12. After beating the Utes, Tad Boyle and Colorado have finished with their seventh winning season in a row.
For their final game, the Colorado team faced more injury and health complications. KJ Simpson was out for the game after being diagnosed with mono. He also will not be able to play in the Pac-12 conference later this week. In addition, J’Vonne Hadley and Javon Ruffin continue to be sidelined due to their injuries. After a rough fall against UCLA on Feb. 26, Tristan da Silva came off the bench for Colorado with limited game time left, alongside graduate transfer Jalen Gabbdion, who had been held out of the last two games owing to a leg injury.
“It has been an up and down year,” said head coach Tad Boyle. “There’s no question about that. The challenge I gave our team today before the game was: we [could] finish this year with a winning record or a losing record in the regular season. It would be their choice.”
Colorado came out of the gates slow on Saturday; however, the team soon started to pick up the pace after switching to a zone defense. With their signature lockdown defense, the Buffs held the Utes to eight of 29 shooting in the first quarter and made their last four shots to go up, bringing the score to 33-21 by halftime.
CU opened up the second half in a similar way, with Ethan Wright hitting back-to-back 3-pointers that grew the lead to 16 points. The Buffaloes controlled the pace as the game went on, keeping their lead of at least eight points for most of the half. While the Utes’ offensive struggles continued as the game went on, the Buffs’ managed to maintain their lead until the end, resulting in their nine-point win.
“When we made them work, the breakdown would come,” Boyle said. “We could capitalize on it, but we couldn’t get impatient about it. Overall, for the most part, we made good decisions with the ball [offensively].”
Julian Hammond led the way for the Buffs, as the sophomore stepped up to replace Simpson. He recorded a career-high 15 points, three rebounds, five assists and five steals. This was the first time this season that a Pac-12 player made that many points, assists and steals in one game. Hammond made a few flashy plays and seemed to find every loose ball, showing he could successfully step into a more prominent role when needed.
In perhaps his best game of the season, Nique Clifford dominated in every aspect, finishing with 14 points, 11 rebounds, two assists, a steal and a block. Collecting his first career double-double, Clifford blew his season averages out of the water and looked to be in good form going into the Pac-12 tournament.
“A few games ago, I had zero rebounds, and that was something that the coaches stressed to me,” Clifford said. “[I need] to keep doing that for us. As a collective group, we need to be a team that rebounds, especially going into the tournament.”
Though Hammond and Clifford led on the stat sheet for CU on Saturday night, the win against the Utes was a team effort. Coming off the bench after only 23 minutes, da Silva scored 15 points on an efficient five of eight shooting. Despite his lingering injury, he found ways to be impactful in a more limited role than usual.
“We taped up [the injury] pretty well yesterday in practice,” da Silva said. “I felt stable enough to push through and play today, so I tried to do that.”
One of the critical factors in Colorado’s win was their strong defensive playing. The team held Utah to 33% shooting, compared to CU’s 46%, and they maintained the rebounding advantage for the entirety of the game, ending with six more than the Utes. Though the Buffs had 14 turnovers, their bench played an important role in maintaining the lead during the second half.
On Saturday, the Buffs also celebrated Senior Night. The team honored graduating seniors Cody Mains, Wright and Gabbidon. As they spoke to the crowd, all three players expressed their appreciation for the support from training staff, coaches, fans and their families during their time on the team at CU.
For his final game at CU, Wright played particularly well. He finished with 10 points, four rebounds and two assists, and his two big 3-pointers gave CU control for the rest of the game.
“I’ve only been here for a year, but these guys are my brothers,” Wright said. “I’m really close to them. They accepted me right away. It’s been a pleasure to play with them and to play on this floor with so many people supporting us.”
With their regular season officially over, the Buffaloes will be traveling to Las Vegas for the Pac-12 tournament on March 8-11. They will play the University of Washington on Wednesday, March 8, at 1 p.m. MST, and the winning team will face UCLA the following day on Thursday, March 9.
Contact CU Independent Staff Writer Eli Gregorski at firstname.lastname@example.org.