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End of Utah drought the next task for CU Buffs men’s basketball

Buffs seek payback after last year’s heartbreak in Salt Lake

Colorado coach Tad Boyle reacts to a foul call in the Buffs’ loss to Utah last season.
Colorado coach Tad Boyle reacts to a foul call in the Buffs’ loss to Utah last season.

Much like Arizona’s McKale Center, Utah’s Huntsman Center has not been a friendly venue for the Colorado Buffaloes.

None of the defeats in Salt Lake City, of which there have been plenty in the past nine years, have stung quite as much as what occurred at the Huntsman Center nine months ago. With an opportunity at hand to earn a top-four seed and a first-round bye at the Pac-12 Conference tournament, the Buffs on March dropped an overtime decision to the Utes when McKinley Wright IV was called for a foul on a 3-point attempt by Utah’s Both Gach with 0.6 seconds remaining in overtime.

CU was leading by a point, but Gach’s three free throws gave the Utes a stunning victory. It was the Buffs’ eighth consecutive loss at Utah and, as the fourth defeat in what became a five-game, season-ending losing streak, it pushed the Buffs out of their first top-four finish in the Pac-12.

The world has changed immensely in the nine months since, the least of which is that Gach, Utah’s second-leading scorer last year, is now at Minnesota. The Buffs are hoping a new year leads to a change of fortune at the Huntsman Center, as CU visits the Utes on Monday afternoon to tip off the second scheduled three-game week in three weeks of Pac-12 play.

The game originally was slated to be each team’s regular-season finale on March 6, when every Pac-12 team is scheduled to play just one game in the season’s final week. Once Oregon State announced it was forced to postpone its visits to CU and Utah this past week due to coronavirus protocols, the Buffs and Utah opted to pair up on Monday, allowing greater flexibility for rescheduling games during that final week.

“I think the biggest thing is we haven’t been able to finish games,” CU head coach Tad Boyle said of his team’s drought at Utah. “Last year’s game is a great example. We couldn’t get stops at the end. And a questionable call went their way. They won the game, we lost the game. We played well enough to win at Utah. I don’t feel like it’s the same kind of deal with McKale. We haven’t always played well at Arizona. Very rarely have we played well there.”

For a Buffs team already angling for NCAA Tournament consideration — CU began the day Sunday ranked 11th in the NET and 20th at KenPom.com — ending the drought at Utah and adding another road win would provide a huge boost. This game will mark the fourth time in five Pac-12 games the Buffs have played on the road after going 1-2 during a three-game road swing during the opening week of league play.

CU has two true road wins to its credit, at Kansas State and USC, alongside three neutral court wins. Defeating the Utes would move CU above .500 in Pac-12 play with nine of the scheduled 15 league games remaining at home.

“It’s just going to come down to toughness. It’s going to come down to making plays. It’s going to come down to making some shots,” Boyle said. “I watched our game from last year, and I know they don’t have Both Gach, but they’ve got a lot of other guys that are back. We’ve gotten good shots, but we’ve got to be able to make shots when we have them.”

CU Buffs men’s basketball at Utah Utes

TIPOFF: Monday, 4 p.m. MT, Huntsman Center, Salt Lake City.

BROADCAST: TV — Pac-12 Networks; Radio — KOA 850 AM and 94.1 FM.

RECORDS: Colorado 8-2, 2-2 Pac-12 Conference; Utah 4-4, 1-3.

COACHES: Colorado — Tad Boyle, 11th season (218-137, 274-203 overall); Utah — Larry Krystkowiak, 10th season (175-130, 217-150 overall).

KEY PLAYERS: Colorado — G McKinley Wright IV, Sr., 16.0 ppg, 5.2 apg, 5.0 rpg; F Jeriah Horne, Sr., 11.3 ppg, 5.8 rpg, .435 3-point percentage; F Evan Battey, R-Jr., 9.9 ppg, 4.2 rpg. Utah — F Timmy Allen, Jr., 15.4 ppg, 5.6 rpg; G Alfonso Plummer, Sr., 13.4 ppg, 3.3 rpg, F Mikael Jantunen, So., 10.3 ppg, 4.9 rpg.

WHAT TO WATCH: Despite losing to Oregon on Saturday, the Utes were able to post a .558 shooting percentage but were undone by 18 turnovers. The Buffs are forcing an average of 14.4 turnovers per game and will look to hold the Utes to closer to CU’s average defensive field goal percentage of .411.

NOTES: Utah is coming off a 79-73 loss at home Saturday against No. 17 Oregon in which the Utes led by 10 at halftime…Wright needs four assists to match, and five to surpass, Jay Humphries’ 37-year old program record of 562 career assists…Wright posted 20 points and six assists during last year’s overtime loss at Utah…Buffs 7-footer Dallas Walton is expected to miss his fourth consecutive game due to a lower leg injury…CU senior D’Shawn Schwartz needs one 3-pointer to tie Cory Higgins for 14th on CU’s career list and two to match Mack Tuck and Dominique Collier for a tie at 12th-place…CU returns home to host Cal on Thursday (noon, Pac-12 Networks) and Stanford on Saturday (1 p.m., Pac-12 Networks).