Cliff Grassmick/Staff Photographer
Going into the final home game of the season, the Colorado Buffaloes will be all alone at the top of the Pac-12 Conference standings.
Combining a solid defensive effort with another stellar second-half shooting performance, the 18th-ranked Buffs overcame a slow start and an early 14-point deficit to hold off visiting USC for a 70-66 victory Thursday night at the CU Events Center.
The win gave CU its second consecutive season sweep of the Trojans and, more importantly, put the Buffs in position to control their own destiny in pursuit of the program’s first regular season conference championship in 51 years. The win, combined with Arizona State’s victory against Oregon on Thursday, put CU in sole possession of first place in the league, though Arizona and ASU remained just a half-game back.
“It means nothing,” CU coach Tad Boyle said of his team’s status as league front-runners. “There’s four games to go. Being in first place right now, it didn’t mean anything two weeks ago. It doesn’t mean anything right now. It means absolutely nothing. What matters is we have to take care of business on Saturday. That’s all that matters. First place, whatever. We have to win the next game and do our job and take care of our two seniors that deserve a great sendoff.”
The Buffs dug themselves a hole in the first half, at one point suffering a scoring drought of nearly five minutes while USC reeled off 13 consecutive points to take a 20-6 lead. CU’s deficit remained 22-8 when the Buffs finally came alive, unleashing an 18-4 run that tied the game at 26-26. The Trojans scored the final three points of the first half to take a 29-26 lead at halftime.
CU committed 11 turnovers in the first half and surrendered nine offensive rebounds to USC. The Buffs lowered those totals to four turnovers and two offensive rebounds for the Trojans after halftime.
“I just had a talk with coach after about that. My energy was bad to start the game,” CU point guard McKinley Wright IV said. “When that happens, my teammates’ energy is bad. I’ve got to get off to a better start with my energy and lead these guys in the right direction. And we’ve got to get on the glass, all five guys.
“Turnovers and offensive rebounds. Those were two areas we were really bad at in the first half. That’s why we got down 14 points.”
USC added the first three points of the second half before the Buffs got hot once again, scoring nine consecutive points in a 12-2 run that gave CU its first lead of the night. The Buffs eventually pushed their lead to 12 points on back-to-back 3-pointers from Lucas Siewert, but this time it was USC’s turn to chip away, getting to within three points on a Daniel Utomi 3-pointer with about 4:20 remaining. USC remained within three with just over two minutes to play after a Jonah Mathews 3-pointer.
A rebound basket by USC freshman Onyeka Okongwu got the Trojans within one point with 1:30 remaining. But Wright connected on a floater to give CU some breathing room, and after two more defensive stops, a free throw from Wright sealed the win in the waning seconds.
Tyler Bey posted his 11th double-double of the season and the 30th of his career with 14 points and 11 rebounds, while Wright finished with a team-high 15 points alongside seven assists and six rebounds. CU shot .607 after halftime while going 8-for-14 on 3-pointers.
“I think it shows mental toughness. You have to have that,” Boyle said. “You’ve got to be able to bounce back from a tough possession, or a tough half, or a tough game. We’ve shown that in terms of tough games, bouncing back from tough losses. We haven’t always shown it after a tough possession. We let one tough possession turn into two, turn into three, turn into four. We’ve also let one bad half turn into a second bad half. Tonight we didn’t let that happen.”
What went right: CU shot .607 after halftime (17-for-28) with an 8-for-14 mark on 3-pointers. Also, after committing 11 turnovers in the first half, the Buffs recorded just four after the break.
What went wrong: Those 11 first-half turnovers kept CU from finding an offensive rhythm the first 12 minutes of the game.
Star of the game: McKinley Wright IV. It was a balanced scoring effort for CU with five players in double figures, but Wright was big down the stretch, and he finished with a team-high 15 points along with seven assists and six rebounds.
What’s next: The Buffs host the final home game of the season Saturday afternoon against UCLA (2 p.m., CBS).
No. 18 COLORADO 70, USC 66
SOUTHERN CAL (19-8, 9-5 Pac-12 )
Okongwu 10-13 1-1 21, Rakocevic 6-13 2-3 14, E.Anderson 0-4 0-0 0, Mathews 7-11 2-2 17, Utomi 3-7 3-4 10, Weaver 2-11 0-0 4, Mobley 0-2 0-0 0, Agbonkpolo 0-0 0-0 0. Totals 28-61 8-10 66.
COLORADO (21-6, 10-4)
Battey 0-2 1-2 1, Gatling 5-8 0-0 13, Wright 7-13 1-2 15, Bey 5-10 3-3 14, Schwartz 4-8 0-0 11, Siewert 4-8 0-1 11, Parquet 2-4 0-0 5, Daniels 0-1 0-0 0, Kountz 0-1 0-0 0, Walton 0-2 0-0 0. Totals 27-57 5-8 70.
Halftime – Southern Cal 29-26. 3-Point Goals – Southern Cal 2-10 (Utomi 1-1, Mathews 1-3, E.Anderson 0-1, Weaver 0-5), Colorado 11-26 (Gatling 3-4, Siewert 3-5, Schwartz 3-6, Bey 1-2, Parquet 1-3, Battey 0-1, Walton 0-1, Wright 0-4). Fouled Out – Battey. Rebounds – Southern Cal 32 (Rakocevic 11), Colorado 35 (Bey 11). Assists – Southern Cal 9 (Weaver 4), Colorado 16 (Wright 7). Total Fouls – Southern Cal 16, Colorado 12. A – 10,027.