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Upset special: Colorado men’s basketball knocks off No. 11 Tennessee

Players on the Colorado bench react during the second half of an NCAA college basketball game against Tennessee Sunday, Nov. 13, 2022, in Nashville, Tenn. Colorado won 78-66. (AP Photo/John Amis)
Players on the Colorado bench react during the second half of an NCAA college basketball game against Tennessee Sunday, Nov. 13, 2022, in Nashville, Tenn. Colorado won 78-66. (AP Photo/John Amis)

NASHVILLE, Tenn. — The same names were on the backs of the Colorado jerseys. But this was a much different squad than the one that began its five-game road trip two nights earlier.

And it wasn’t just about the lineup for the Colorado men’s basketball team. Head coach Tad Boyle opted to send a message after an ugly loss on Friday at Grambling State by juggling his starting lineup. It hardly was a unique tactic, but Boyle decided to turn to four bench players who had never previously started for the Buffaloes to set the tone in hostile territory against 11th-ranked Tennessee.

The ploy worked to perfection.

Less than 48 hours after an ugly loss at Grambling State, CU pulled off a stunner on Sunday afternoon on a not-so neutral floor, upsetting No. 11 Tennessee 78-66 in front of a decidedly pro-Volunteers crowd at Bridgestone Arena.

It was the highest-ranked opponent the Buffs have defeated on a neutral floor since upsetting sixth-ranked Missouri in the 1990 Big Eight Tournament.

“I just felt like we got to send a message to the guys that start the game, that they have a responsibility to bring energy and be ready to roll,” Boyle said. “Because we do have quality depth on this team. It also was a message to those guys on the bench that hey, you better be ready. And I thought those guys that did start the game, at the (first) media timeout we were right there.

“We’ve got a rotation of 10 guys right now, and it’s hard to play 10 guys. But I thought it was a message that I sent both to the guys that start the game and the guys that are on the bench that we’re all equally important and we have to be ready to go every time we step on the floor. Really proud of how they responded.”

It was a stirring win that erased much of the bad taste left behind at Grambling, yet one that hardly was without its flaws.

The Buffs once again struggled with turnovers, committing 11 in the first half and 19 overall. While some questionable calls were mixed into the foul total in the first 30 minutes, the Buffs had to weather foul trouble and a parade of free throws in the first half for Tennessee, which pretty much built its 34-32 halftime lead with a 17-for-21 effort at the line.

In the end, though, it was a classic case of Colorado using defense and rebounding to find a way to win, although the Buffs did shoot .536 (15-for-28) after halftime. CU harassed the Vols into a lowly .254 shooting percentage, including a 10-for-37 mark on 3-pointers. The Buffs recorded 12 steals, forced 15 Tennessee turnovers and, despite their own giveaways, actually enjoyed a slight advantage in points off turnovers (16-14).

CU also dominated the Vols in paint points (34-10) and fast break points (12-3). The Buffs trailed by two points at halftime but outscored Tennessee 46-32 in the second half.

“We just wanted to focus on coming out in the second half with even more energy than we did in the first,” CU sophomore guard KJ Simpson said. “We knew they were going to try and come out and try to get momentum, get the crowd more into it, and picking up their energy a lot. We just really wanted to focus on coming out even better than we did in the first.”

Simpson took his omission from the starting lineup to heart, posting the first double-double of his career with 23 points and 10 rebounds. The same goes for Tristan da Silva, who enjoyed a nearly flawless shooting performance (5-for-7 overall, 2-for-3 on 3-pointers, 2-for-2 free throws) before finishing with 14 points. J’Vonne Hadley scored just five points, but he recorded 10 rebounds and three blocked shots.

Early in the second half, CU took its first lead since the early moments on an 8-0 run highlighted by back-to-back 3-pointers from Jalen Gabbidon and Julian Hammond III. The Buffs’ lead was at five points when they took control with a 9-0 run, capped by a Lawson Lovering-to-da Silva 3-pointer.

“It speaks to the character of our guys,” Boyle said. “They are competitors. KJ is as good a competitor as we’ve ever had in this program, and we’ve had some good ones. They had a bad taste in their mouth, just like we all did. But they responded. That’s the thing you want to see from your team and your players, is how they respond to the challenges you throw at them.”

Snapshot: CU Buffs vs. No. 11 Tennessee

Turning point: The Buffs took their first lead since the opening minutes with an 8-0 run early in the second half, then took control with a 9-0 run minutes later.

Buff of the game: KJ Simpson. The sophomore had the finest game of his young career, posting his first career double-double with career-highs of 23 points and 10 rebounds. Simpson also was 7-for-9 on free throws, all in the second half.

What’s next: The long road trip continues at the Myrtle Beach Invitational, where the Buffs open a three-game tournament against UMass on Thursday (11:30 a.m. MT, ESPNU).

Colorado 78, No. 11 Tennessee 66

Lovering 1-2 1-1 3, Gabbidon 2-9 3-5 8, O’Brien 1-5 0-0 2, Ruffin 2-5 1-1 5, Wright 3-5 0-0 8, Simpson 7-16 7-9 23, da Silva 5-7 2-2 14, Hammond 4-6 0-0 9, Hadley 2-5 1-1 5, Clifford 0-2 1-2 1, Hurlburt 0-0 0-0 0. Totals 27-62 16-21 78.


Nkamhoua 1-8 2-4 4, Phillips 1-6 3-4 5, Plavsic 0-0 0-0 0, Vescovi 2-13 5-5 11, Zeigler 4-12 2-3 12, Key 2-9 9-11 15, James 5-11 1-1 15, Mashack 1-4 0-0 2, Aidoo 0-0 2-2 2, Awaka 0-0 0-0 0. Totals 16-63 24-30 66.

Halftime — Tennessee 34-32. 3-point field goals — Colorado 8-26 (da Silva 2-3, Wright 2-4, Simpson 2-7, Hammond 1-2, Gabbidon 1-4, Clifford 0-1, Ruffin 0-2, O’Brien 0-3), Tennessee 10-37 (James 4-8, Key 2-5, Zeigler 2-6, Vescovi 2-11, Phillips 0-3, Nkamhoua 0-4). Rebounds — Colorado 47 (Hadley 10, Simpson 10), Tennessee 38 (Nkamhoua 10). Assists — Colorado 12 (Simpson, Hammond 3), Tennessee 13 (Zeigler 4). Total Fouls — Colorado 21, Tennessee 21. A — 12,482.