STANFORD, Calif. — Out of sheer necessity, Colorado Buffaloes men's basketball coach Tad Boyle resorted to a ploy he likened to a taboo cuss word.
A return to form defensively helped the Buffs salvage a split of their first two Pac-12 Conference games of the season, with CU bouncing back from a lethargic performance at Cal to hold off Stanford for a one-point road win Sunday night.
CU was able to build enough of a cushion during an impressive first half to hold off the Cardinal down the stretch, and much of that advantage was put together with CU relying on a rarely utilized zone defense.
With the Buffs' lone regular frontcourt reserve player, Tory Miller, sidelined and several other players saddled with two early fouls, CU settled into a zone far more frequently than usual. The tactic worked, as the Buffs held Stanford to an overall .315 shooting percentage and a 3-for-15 mark from 3-point range.
"Shorter bench, foul trouble in the first half, and with Stanford there were some lineups in there where we thought they were zone-able, when they had one or maybe two shooters on the floor," Boyle said. "It's not something we want to do a lot, but the opportunity presented itself. Anybody who follows this program knows I think 'zone' is a four-letter word. I try to stay away from it as much as I can, but the guys did a good job with it."
Miller hit his head on the floor in a tumble during Friday's loss at Cal, and while he eventually returned to the rotation against the Golden Bears, he was held out against Stanford. With Miller sidelined forward Wes Gordon matched a season-high with 33 minutes while Josh Scott logged a season-high 38 minutes.
With starting Dom Collier struggling through a slump — the sophomore has tallied seven turnovers with no assists in 59 minutes over the past three games — Belgian freshman Thomas Akyazili has picked up the slack off the bench.
During that same three-game span, Akyazili has recorded 11 assists with just one turnover in 58 minutes. He matched his personal best with four assists Friday against Cal and topped that mark with five assists against Stanford. All five of those helpers occurred during the first half, with several coming on sharp-eyed passes inside that led to easy CU buckets.
"I think my practices are going well and I'm getting better," Akyazili said. "I work hard and I'm just trying to get better every day. I had five assists in the first half and I know that's good, but I'm still not happy with my game. I can do a lot better."
Akyazili's assists-to-turnover ration has climbed to an impressive 2.6 (29 assists, 11 turnovers).
After playing their first two games on the road, the Buffaloes went nine consecutive games without leaving the state of Colorado.
Sunday's win completed a season-long stretch of four games away from home, and now CU will play at home for three consecutive games for the final time this season beginning Friday against Utah (7 p.m., Fox Sports 1). Boyle has reiterated his call to intensify the atmosphere at the Coors Events Center.
"We have to hold serve at home. We have to be a great home team," Boyle said. "The Coors Events Center, there's no reason why it can't be the hardest place to play in the league. If our fans take it upon themselves to show up with great energy, if our players and coaches to prepare ... it sure would be nice to get students out. I know they're not back in school yet, but there's enough to fill up that student section around Boulder."
Expect Utah to be a hungry, desperate bunch when it hits the Coors Events Center floor on Friday. The Utes began the weekend ranked No. 21 on the heels of an overtime win against Duke before the holidays but began league play with road losses against Stanford and Cal. ...The Buffs went 6-for-23 from 3-point range against Stanford and finished 9-for-34 from beyond the arc in the two games on the road trip.