LOS ANGELES -- Colorado coach Tad Boyle wasn't ready to sleep at 1:30 a.m. on Saturday morning. So less than 14 hours before playing in the Buffaloes' first conference tournament championship game since 1990, Boyle started text messaging.
“We dedicated this game to Cory Higgins, Levi Knutson, Marcus Relphorde, Trent Beckley, Javon Coney and Alec Burks.” Boyle said. “I texted them all at 1:30 in the morning, the six guys who were in that room [on Selection Sunday last year] who are no longer with us today, and told them that we are winning this for them.”
That dedication turned into delirium for the Buffaloes at Staples Center, as Colorado won't have to worry about any slights from the NCAA tournament selection committee this season. The Buffaloes clinched the Pac-12's automatic tournament berth with a 53-51 victory over Arizona, the first conference tournament title in program history.
Colorado (23-11) emerged victorious despite only scoring three points in the final 9:10. Its only field goal during that span came on a windmill dunk by Carlon Brown with 52.6 seconds left that provided the game-winning points. But for a program that hadn't made the tournament since 2003 -- falling on the wrong side of the bubble several times in the years since, including last season's disappointment -- holding on for dear life while milking a 50-38 lead down to the end was somewhat fitting.
“It was tough there at the end, but we knew that we had to make that last stop,” said forward Austin Dufault, who scored eight points and had seven key rebounds. “We've played great defense all year and I was hoping for one last stop.”
The Buffaloes got that last stop, as Nate Tomlinson harrassed Kyle Fogg's shot attempt, a long jumper at the buzzer that didn't come close to being good. That set off an uproarious celebration that was 365 days later than Colorado expected it to be.
“[Selection Sunday] last year was probably the worst experience in my life, at least as far as basketball is concerned,” Dufault said. “This one is probably the best. It feels so good right now, especially after what we went through last year.”
Brown didn't play on last season's team, as he sat out after transferring from Utah. But the pain of missing out on Selection Sunday was just as real to him. Having played in the tournament in 2009, when he was a sophomore with the Utes, he wanted to bring the rest of his teammates that experience.
“I told the guys at halftime that there's nothing better than winning a tournament championship and cutting down those nets and getting all this free gear,” Brown said. “On a serious note, I'm the only person that's been to the tournament. I know how it feels and I wanted these guys to feel it.”
Colorado did that with a workmanlike effort, especially defensively and on the glass. The Buffaloes outrebounded Arizona 35-23 -- with Andre Roberson notching his 19th double-double of the season and third of the tournament with 10 points and 11 rebounds. They held the Wildcats to 36.7 percent shooting, including 26.3 percent from the 3-point line. The Wildcats (23-11) missed all seven of their 3-point attempts in the second half.
“We have this drill in practice called the 'bubble drill' where we put a bubble over the basket for the last four to five minutes of the game,” Boyle said. “The only way you can win is to play defense and get stops. Our guys believe in that drill.”
The Buffaloes also believe in themselves, even if they were the only ones that held that belief for most of the season. After losing their top four scorers from last season, including an NBA lottery pick in Burks, the Buffaloes were picked to finish 11th in their new conference.
Turns out that the preseason prediction was 10 spots too low, at least in terms of the conference tournament. By winning four games in four days the Buffaloes now have a legion of believers that extends past their spirited student section, which stole the show in the Staples Center stands.
“The job that Tad Boyle has done at Colorado, and what Colorado represents for the future of the Pac-12, I can make the argument that there's been no greater gift to college basketball in the Pac-12 than adding Colorado,” Arizona coach Sean Miller said. “I wish them the best in the NCAA tournament. Whoever draws them is running into a hungry, well-coached, disciplined team.”