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Old friendship turns into hoops rivalry for CU Buffs’ Nique Clifford, New Mexico’s Javonte Johnson

Former state prep stars grew up together in Colorado Springs

BOULDER CO - Nov. 9, 2021: ...
Cliff Grassmick/Staff Photographer
BOULDER CO – November 9, 2021: University of Colorado Boulder’s Nique Clifford dunks in the Montana State game on October 9, 2021. (Cliff Grassmick/Staff Photographer)

Officially, Nique Clifford doesn’t have a sibling. Yet he nonetheless has a brother visiting the CU Events Center this weekend.

After putting together what might soon be looked back upon as a breakout performance in a season opening overtime win against Montana State, Clifford and the Buffaloes resumed practice on Thursday ahead of game number two on Saturday afternoon, at home against New Mexico (4:30 p.m., Pac-12 Mountain).

Suiting up for the Lobos will be Javonte Johnson. One of the few New Mexico holdovers from last season under first-year head coach Richard Pitino, Johnson, like Clifford, is a Colorado Springs native, and the duo has been good friends since early childhood.

“That’s my childhood best friend. It’s definitely going to be a crazy experience,” Clifford said. “We’ll have a lot of family and friends here, so it’s going to be really cool. We grew up playing club ball together a little bit when we were very young, and I’ve just known him ever since I was little.

“He’s pretty much my brother, since I don’t have any siblings. They would come to our Thanksgiving dinners. We’re family. It’s going to be a real cool experience to have everyone in the building, all our family, just watching us compete.”

While the Montana State game wasn’t Clifford’s debut — he got off the bench in 14 games totaling 57 minutes as a freshman last season — his performance provided an impressive statement by a player looking to embrace a larger role with the Buffs this season.

Clifford had the look of a player ready to thrive in the sixth man role, coming off the bench to go 3-for-7 overall, 1-for-3 on 3-pointers, and 4-for-6 at the free throw line. The Buffs’ top rebounder during their summer exhibition trip to Costa Rica as well as during the preseason, Clifford paced the Buffs with nine rebounds and also recorded two steals, one assist, and only one turnover in 35 minutes. His plus/minus rating of plus-9 led the team.

“Nique, I’m really proud of him in terms of how he handled last year and then had a great offseason,” CU head coach Tad Boyle said. “He’s a team guy. I told him the only reason he’s not starting is so I can get Tristan (da Silva) some minutes at the three. Because I feel like we have to have Tristan on the floor. But Nique understands that. He accepts that. He’s a team guy.

“Right now, he’s our best rebounder. He’s been doing it at practice. He did it in Costa Rica. It’s not like it comes and goes. He’s really exerting his will on the game.”

Because Clifford and Johnson played at different prep levels — Clifford at Class 3A Vanguard, Johnson at 4A Cheyenne Mountain — the old friends haven’t locked horns in a competitive game beyond a few preseason scrimmages in high school.

Johnson was one of just three Lobos players who appeared in all 22 games last season. In New Mexico’s opener, a 99-92 win against Florida Atlantic on Wednesday, Johnson came off the bench to go 2-for-2 with seven points and two rebounds in 17 minutes.

“Our fans showed up for us, and I think that was a big part of the game,” Clifford said of his 2021-22 debut. “I hadn’t played in front of a real crowd at CU yet, so it was a real cool experience. I’ve got a lot to learn and grow from, but it definitely wasn’t a bad start to the season. Especially getting the win.”

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