NASHVILLE, Tenn. — Four players received their first starts for the Colorado men’s basketball team. In a pressure-packed situation, nonetheless.
All of them responded with key contributions, as the Buffaloes changed the tone of a long road trip that began in frustrating fashion by defeating No. 11 Tennessee 78-66 on Sunday at a non-neutral, neutral floor in Bridgeport Arena.
For the first two regular season games, plus CU’s exhibition game against Nebraska, head coach Tad Boyle used an identical starting lineup of KJ Simpson, Nique Clifford, J’Vonne Hadley, Tristan da Silva and Lawson Lovering.
However, frustrated by his team’s lackadaisical effort less than 48 hours earlier in a loss at Grambling State, Boyle kept Lovering in the starting five but juggled the other four spots, going with Javon Ruffin, Luke O’Brien, Jalen Gabbidon and Ethan Wright. It was the first career starts for O’Brien and Ruffin, and the first starts at CU for Gabbidon and Wright, both graduate transfers out of the Ivy League.
“I knew what (Boyle) was doing and I knew the strategy behind it,” Simpson said. “I just gathered up the guys that usually do start and just told them what coach is trying to do and how we have to respond, especially coming out against a really, really good team like Tennessee. We even talked to the guys that were starting, (saying) we have all the faith in you. We’re a really deep team, so we were just pushing them to be themselves and just play hard. And then we would just come right in and follow their energy and build right off of them. And we sure did.”
Wright knocked down a pair of 3-pointers, his first from long range as a Buff, and Gabbidon keyed a defensive effort that held Tennessee to a miniscule .254 shooting percentage.
Not only did the new starters respond, but the displaced starters did as well. Simpson posted his first career double-double while recording career-highs in points (23) and rebounds (10). Da Silva had his finest game of the young season, going 5-for-7 with 14 points, including a huge 3-pointer that capped a 9-0 second half run that put the Buffs in control. Hadley scored only five points but once again provided plenty of grit, finishing with 10 rebounds and three blocked shots.
Ruffin finished with just five points in his first start, and he briefly went to the locker room after getting dinged while attempting to draw a charge. But he recorded those points on a rebound bucket and a 3-point play after a steal, and afterward Boyle praised Ruffin’s poise.
“Javon Ruffin, as a freshman, to throw him out there in his first career start, he responded,” Boyle said. “He struggled a little bit early, but he came back and showed fight.”
Gabbidon was instrumental in shutting down Tennessee guard Santiago Vescovi, who terrorized the Buffs a year ago. In Tennessee’s win in Boulder last year, Vescovi went 5-for-5 with three 3-pointers and 13 points. On Sunday, he was just 2-for-13 with three assists against a team-high-tying four turnovers.
“We had some unbelievable defensive efforts from different guys on our team,” Boyle said. “Jalen Gabbidon, the job he did on Vescovi, who is a heck of a player. KJ did a great job on (Zakai) Zeigler, who’s quick and fast. Julian Hammond, Ethan Wright…we had really good contributions from the bench.”
High praise imitation
After watching his team throw up bricks and commit 15 turnovers, veteran Tennessee coach Rick Barnes said after the game he was going to take a page out of Boyle’s playbook concerning his own starting lineup going forward.
Barnes’ criticism was laid heavily on point guard Zakai Zeigler. The sophomore and Simpson got into a few mild verbal exchanges in the second half and appeared at times to attempt to one-up each other. Simpson got the best of that matchup, as Zeigler finished 4-for-12 with 12 points.
“I thought our guard play set the tone in a negative way for us,” Barnes said. “Zakai was wild. (Sunday) he was totally out of control. To the point I’ve already told him he’s not starting. We’ll have to make a decision how we want to go that way.
“I’m probably going to do the same thing (with the lineup). Because I’m not happy where we are.”
“They got whatever they wanted in the second half, especially the last 10 minutes. We got wild. I’m looking out there like I don’t have a clue what we’re doing.”
— Barnes, after the Vols were outscored 46-32 in the second half.
After missing the game at Grambling State due to undisclosed reasons, redshirt freshman Quincy Allen was dressed and on the CU bench on Sunday…Tennessee’s starting center, 7-foot-1 Uros Plavsic, turned an ankle in the opening minutes and did not return…CU was 0-4 all-time against the Volunteers prior to Sunday’s victory.