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Xavier Johnson looks to shake off recent lull for CU hoops stretch run

Colorado's Xavier Johnson, center, reacts to being called for a foul during the first half of Saturday's game against Oregon in Eugene, Ore.
Chris Pietsch / Associated Press
Colorado’s Xavier Johnson, center, reacts to being called for a foul during the first half of Saturday’s game against Oregon in Eugene, Ore.

Xavier Johnson feels as if he has been here before.

On Thursday night, the Colorado Buffaloes begin a run of three consecutive home games to complete the regular season, a stretch that starts against the Utah Utes (9 p.m., ESPNU).

A year ago, Johnson was relegated to the sideline, a torn Achilles tendon preventing him from enjoying final-season festivities alongside three players he arrived in Boulder with — Josh Scott, Xavier Talton, and former high school teammate Eli Stalzer.

By that time Johnson had largely come to grips with the idea of returning to CU for a fifth and final season, ending his collegiate career on the floor instead of in a walking boot and alongside another teammate from that 2012-2013 freshman class, Wesley Gordon.

Still, Johnson admits there were times last season he wondered if he had played his last college game. And so as the final push of his final season begins, Johnson finds himself gripped by familiar emotions.

“It’s a little different for me, because I feel like I’ve had these thoughts for two years, because I felt like me going into the previous year, ‘Oh this is my senior year.’ So that thought isn’t deep in my mind,” Johnson said. “I’m ready to play and move on in my life and play somewhere else, hopefully. We’re just going to keep playing basketball and win as many games as possible.”

While Johnson has provided a steady scoring presence for the Buffs for much of the season, he has struggled somewhat in three games since he and Gordon returned from a two-game suspension due to a violation of team rules.

In his first post-suspension game, Johnson went 1-for-8 in a win against Washington State and scored a season-low four points. Johnson rebounded in a win at Oregon State last week, scoring 17 points that included a huge 3-pointer down the stretch in the Buffs’ game-clinching 8-2 run to close it out.

Against Oregon on Saturday, though, Johnson struggled again. Greeted by jeers from the Oregon student section, Johnson went 3-for-11 overall and 0-for-7 from 3-point range, finishing with just nine points. Johnson has been limited to single-digit points just six times this season, and his post-suspension run marked the first time two single-digit scoring efforts occurred within as few as three games.

“I didn’t take too many contested shots (at Oregon),” Johnson said. “I missed a lot of shots, but I’m one of the best shooters in the Pac-12, so I’m going to keep shooting. Shooters shoot, period. You make some, you miss some. I was 0-for-7 but I haven’t done that a lot. I didn’t help the team by missing those shots, but if I would have made them, it would have made a difference.”

Though head coach Tad Boyle didn’t hesitate to send Johnson and Gordon to the sideline for two games prior to CU’s date at Cal on Feb. 5, the Buffs’ leader still believes the duo, along with his team’s other two seniors, has pivotal leadership roles to play as CU embarks on the final weeks of the season.

“They understand the end is near, and if anyone should be playing with a sense of urgency, it should be our four seniors,” Boyle said. “Wes and X are two of them. Derrick (White) and Josh Fortune are the other two. They’re all in the rotation. Three of them are in the starting lineup. It’s important for them to set the tone, especially down the stretch.”

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