BERKELEY, Calif. — It was a relatively long postgame gathering in the Colorado Buffaloes’ locker room Thursday night.
The Buffs had just trudged down into the bowels of Cal’s Haas Pavilion on the heels of their second consecutive loss — the first time since early December the 21st-ranked Buffs have dropped back-to-back games.
Unlike CU’s two most recent losses at home against UCLA and at Oregon, Thursday’s debacle was not an instance of the Buffs playing well for most of the contest, only to let a win slip away down the stretch. The Buffs led a Bears team that had lost five of its previous six games only briefly in the first half before Cal once again took control. This was the sort of drubbing the Buffs endured at Kansas and at Arizona, except this time it occurred against a team that entered the contest fighting to stay out of the Pac-12 Conference basement.
Junior point guard McKinley Wright IV, one of the few Buffs who could say he enjoyed an above-par game against the Bears and whose effort kept the Buffs in the fight for much of the night, eventually took command of the postgame meeting. Though it will be difficult for CU to play its way out of the NCAA Tournament field, the Buffs nonetheless were expecting to go into the final games of the regular season battling for the conference championship. Now CU might need help just to finish in the top four and receive its first first-round bye at the Pac-12 tournament.
“I called them out individually, man to man, and I told them to not take it personal, but we have to step up as an individual and be able to guard our matchup and take that personal and have some pride in our defense,” Wright said. “Credit to Cal. They made a lot of tough shots. We’ve just got to be better on the defensive end.”
Wright made his first four shots against Cal and finished with a team-leading 18 points while sharing the team lead with six rebounds. Yet Wright had to work tirelessly for his production, and though CU’s defense was the primary culprit of Thursday’s defeat, the offense often grew stagnant while Wright tried to make a play. In one sequence, a double-teamed Tyler Bey threw the ball away, but while going into a timeout immediately after that turnover, head coach Tad Boyle clearly was upset with how Daylen Kountz, in the game to give Wright a breather, failed to move into better position for Bey to make the pass.
“I think our players need to believe in themselves as much as they believe in McKinley Wright,” said Boyle, whose club completes the Bay Area trip Sunday at Stanford. “If every guy in that locker room would believe in themselves like they believe in him, they won’t lose their confidence.
“The first half, they started doubling the ball screens and we’re just standing around like, ‘Oh, McKinley can’t make a play.’ Well, guess what? Now it’s time for somebody else to make a play. You’ve got to cut. You’ve got to move. You’ve got to slice. You’ve got to be open. You’ve got to be ready to come make a play. Because he can’t make every play for us. He makes a lot of plays for us, but he can’t make every play. If our players, to a man, believe in themselves as much as they I know they believe in McKinley — there’s no question, he’s the guy that everyone looks to on this team — but he can’t do it by himself.”