LAS VEGAS — Shortly after the University of Colorado men's basketball team escaped a late flurry from Penn State to record a historic victory for the Buffaloes' program, head coach Tad Boyle declared that senior forward Josh Scott is the “most underrated player in America.”
CU's leader also noted Scott's national profile will only expand once the Buffs start putting together victories against elevated competition.
The Buffs' victory late Tuesday night — a 71-70 decision that featured another stellar second half before a nail-biting finish — will give Scott and the Buffs that opportunity on Wednesday, as CU will take a shot against No. 18 SMU in the final of the Las Vegas Classic (8:30 p.m. MST, Fox Sports 1).
It was the 11th win in a row for CU and, at 11-1, the Buffs have put together their best start since the 1941-42 season.
“Another example of (Scott's) leadership, no question,” Boyle said. “If we can get some signature wins for this program the rest of the season, it's not going to stay that way. He's just too good.”
CU once again displayed a knack for coming on strong in the second half, but it was Scott that kept his club in the game while the Buffs struggled offensively during the first half. CU's senior leader scored 15 of his team-leading 18 points in the first half, proving equally effective in the post and on the fast break as the Buffs overcame a 6-for-22 effort from the floor in the opening 20 minutes to take a 25-25 tie into the break.
Scott, who went 4-for-6 from the floor and 7-for-8 at the free throw line during the first half, also finished with a game-best eight rebounds and recorded four blocked shots.
“For once, it was our defense that was actually rolling and our offense that wasn't at halftime,” Scott said. “To me, it felt like we were just being tentative. That (first half) was, mentally, a decision by me. If I miss, make, I need to be aggressive.
“We were struggling and I'm talented enough to do those things, get out on the break and finish inside. In the second half I missed a couple shots I wouldn't like to miss, but it wasn't so much a big deal because people were getting moved. For me, for them to see that somebody is out there being confident and being aggressive, it helps other people feel like they can do the same thing.”
The Buffs took their first lead of the game on a baseline jumper from Wes Gordon immediately after the break but held just a one-point lead after a 3-point play from Penn State's Shep Garner with 8 minutes, 29 seconds remaining.
But Josh Fortune knocked down a pair of 3-pointers in an 11-2 run by CU that also featured five points from point guard Dom Collier, a burst that gave the Buffs the lead for good.
Still, CU has won most of its games during its winning streak going away, and the end of Tuesday night's contest provided a valuable lesson heading into the challenge of SMU. Penn State whittled a 10-point CU lead to three points with 26.4 seconds left and was within two points after a driving layup by Garner, but George King knocked down a pair of free throws with 7.7 seconds left to keep the Nittany Lions at bay.
Penn State knocked down a 3-pointer just before the buzzer for the final one-point margin.
“We've got to know that no game is over until the horn sounds,” Fortune said. “I had a turnover late in the game and they got a dunk, and that got their team going. We've just got to learn to take care of the ball at the end of games.”
After being quiet offensively in the first half, Gordon, Fortune, and King were huge after the break. Fortune made three consecutive 3-point attempts and scored 11 of his 13 points in the second half.
King still finished well under his scoring average with nine points, but he scored them all in the second half and knocked down a pair of jumpers early in the frame that were critical as the Buffs began to surge ahead. Gordon scored eight of his 10 points after the break and finished with six rebounds, while Collier turned in an impressive all-around game with 12 points, five rebounds, and three assists.
CU outrebounded Penn State 40-27 and, after committing nine turnovers in the first half, the Buffs committed only two in the second half.
“We were pretty slow offensively in the first half, but we looked for our defense and that's what really kept us in the game,” Collier said. “I think that's what won us the game, because we played a good defensive game in the first half and it carried over into the second half.”