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Stern opening test passed, yet room for improvement for CU Buffs men’s basketball

Production by committee could be key in 2021-22 season

BOULDER CO - November 9, 2021: University of Colorado Boulder's Jabari Walker prepares to drive on the Montana State defense on November 9, 2021. (Cliff Grassmick/Staff Photographer)
BOULDER CO – November 9, 2021: University of Colorado Boulder’s Jabari Walker prepares to drive on the Montana State defense on November 9, 2021. (Cliff Grassmick/Staff Photographer)

During one sequence, Nique Clifford grabbed a rebound, made a nifty back cut for an easy dunk, and promptly secured another rebound that led to three free throws for Elijah Parquet.

Moments earlier Evan Battey, playing with four fouls yet showing the grit of a fifth-year senior, crashed to the floor while batting an offensive rebound to Jabari Walker, who converted a 3-point play.

And at crunch time it was another senior, Parquet, who was 0-for-3 on 3-pointers through the first 39-plus minutes, knocking down a long-range jumper with 17 seconds remaining that sent the game into overtime.

That is just a small sampling of the key moments, and the array of players involved, that made the difference in Colorado’s season-opening 94-90 comeback win in overtime Tuesday night against visiting Montana State. That some heroics were left out — Walker’s keen-eyed assist on Parquet’s big three, Keeshawn Barthelemy’s play at the point — also illustrates what might be the Buffaloes’ most critical ingredient for success this season.

While a number of players might play like a star on any given night, the Buffs will require a collective effort in order to compete in the Pac-12 Conference and, eventually, for a possible NCAA Tournament bid.

CU took a planned day off on Wednesday, which proved to be a well-thought plan after the lengthy, late-night overtime affair. The Buffs resume practice on Thursday ahead of the season’s first two-games-in-three-days stretch that begins Saturday at home against New Mexico (4:30 p.m., Pac-12 Mountain).

“I say this all the time — players make plays at the end of games,” CU head coach Tad Boyle said. “There’s a lot of things we have to get better at. Guarding the ball. Post defense. There’s a lot of things that Colorado needs to get better at. And our guys understand that. That’s what the film room is for.

“Now the games start coming. The balance between making sure we’re improving, and cleaning up what we learned (Tuesday) and getting ready for New Mexico is a little bit of a delicate balance. They’ll get some rest (Wednesday). We’ll get two days of practice for New Mexico and get after it.”

Once the Buffs dive into the game video on Thursday, Boyle will have plenty of talking points. The Buffs committed 16 turnovers, with six charged to Walker that included a handful of very correctable mistakes. CU’s three biggest forwards — Battey, sophomore Tristan da Silva, and freshman Lawson Lovering — all battled foul trouble, with the 7-foot-1 Lovering fouling out of his first collegiate game with 10 minutes remaining. And while Montana State knocked down some shots the Bobcats would be hard-pressed to repeat, their final shooting tallies (.478 overall, 12-for-30 on 3s) were far higher than the Buffs prefer.

On the other hand, the 6,921 on hand at the Events Center Tuesday night marked the building’s largest crowd since Feb. 22, 2020, the final home date of the 2019-20 season. None of CU’s sophomores or freshmen had played before a home crowd that large, and the young Buffs went toe-to-toe with a team that fell one game short of an NCAA Tournament bid and started three fifth-year seniors.

Were the Bobcats as talented as top Pac-12 squads like UCLA and Oregon? No. But putting together a late comeback, combined with outlasting a determined foe in overtime, was the sort of opening test difficult to script. And the Buffs passed.

“I know how important it is for game one just to set the tone for the requirement of the energy, the attitude, the effort, that’s required to win games,” Battey said. “That’s the cost of entry. I think now we got insight to what it really takes to come out and win games.”

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