Three weeks ago, KJ Simpson was a late-game terror during a two-game run through the Bay Area.
Afterward, however, Simpson was derailed by injury and illness. And he struggled to regain that dominant form in the four games that followed.
That changed on Sunday. Simpson was at his best when the Colorado Buffaloes needed him most, as the sophomore point guard knocked down a 3-pointer with 4.8 seconds left to lift CU to a 58-55 win against Washington State at the CU Events Center.
Much like that Bay Area trip, when Simpson essentially rallied the Buffs single-handedly to a win at Stanford and very nearly did the same at Cal, Simpson repeatedly turned in winning plays down the stretch on Sunday as the Buffs avoided what would have been their first four-game losing streak in nearly three years.
“Being leaders, we have to set the tone. We have to set the example,” Simpson said. “We can’t let the game get so far apart from us. We know in crunch time like that we have to step up. It’s just a testament to our hard work and being ready for the moment.”
Simpson averaged 28 points during that Bay Area split two weeks ago but missed CU’s next game against Oregon due to a combination of a minor ankle injury and an illness that kept him out of practice. He struggled to regain his form in the next four games, averaging just 12.8 points while shooting .375.
Simpson didn’t enjoy his best game against WSU, finishing 5-for-12 from the floor and 5-for-6 at the free throw line to compile his 16 points. Yet Simpson made plays down the stretch, having a hand in nine of the Buffs’ final 11 points.
That run began with a drive down the lane that ended with a thunderous slam that gave CU a four-point lead. Simpson recorded an assist to Tristan da Silva on the next possession, and also hit two free throws with 35.6 seconds left that gave the Buffs a one-point lead.
“KJ is still learning,” CU head coach Tad Boyle said. “That’s the thing we forget. He’s a sophomore. He’s in a new role. Last year he came off the bench, energy guy, makes shots. Now he’s a heavy-minute guy. He’s a starter. Washington State’s scouting report tonight was designed to not let KJ Simpson get down hill, especially in ball screens.
“He’s still in the process of growing into a point guard. He’s going to be a darn good one before it’s all said and done. The thing I love about KJ is there’s no fear in his heart. Absolutely no fear in that kid’s heart. He’s not afraid of the moment. He’s not afraid of competition. He’s not afraid of me. He’s not afraid of anybody. I appreciate him for that and respect him for that.”
LL’s key D
CU center Lawson Lovering didn’t fill up the box score, finishing without a point for the third time this season while grabbing just two rebounds. However, Lovering’s defense was integral to holding down WSU’s standout big man, Mouhamad Gueye.
The 6-foot-11 Gueye entered the game averaging 14.0 points and 8.0 rebounds but was held scoreless for the first time this season, going 0-for-7 with only five rebounds. Gueye also was charged with four turnovers.
WSU head coach Kyle Smith said Gueye was “compromised physically” without elaborating, but Boyle was quick to credit the defense provided by the 7-foot-1 Lovering in limiting Gueye.
“When (Gueye) was in there, we needed Lawson in there because he makes it tough on guys,” Boyle said. “He’s really smart and he clogs the middle. People have no idea how he helps our defense when he’s in there.”
Senior guard Jalen Gabbidon returned to the rotation after missing the previous six games due to a right knee injury suffered on Dec. 29 at Stanford. Gabbidon didn’t attempt a field goal and went 1-for-2 on free throws while also adding two rebounds and a steal.
“A lot of credit goes to Jalen Gabbidon, having him back in uniform and having his defensive effort tonight,” Boyle said. “His unselfishness helped us.”
Reserve guard Javon Ruffin missed his second consecutive game due to a knee injury and wasn’t on the CU bench due to an illness. His status remains day-to-day heading into this week’s two-game trip through Oregon.
Da Silva recorded his sixth 20-point game of the season with 27 points, and he made a little history along the way.
The junior forward made his first nine shots and, combined with the final two he made in Thursday’s loss against Washington, da Silva’s streak of 11 consecutive made shots tied the third-best streak in program history. Andre Roberson also made 11 in a row during a three-game span in the 2012 Pac-12 tournament, and Jim Creighton made 11 in a row against Iowa State on Feb. 14, 1972.
The program record of 12 in a row is shared by Shaun Vandiver (Dec. 4, 1989 vs. Illinois State) and Rodell Guest (Dec. 7-8, 1990 vs. Central Connecticut State and Eastern Michigan).
On Friday, the Buffs hosted 2024 recruit Austin Maurer, a three-star (per 247Sports), 6-foot-9 forward out of Medford, Ore. … CU recorded season-lows against WSU for 3-point attempts (seven), made 3-pointers (two) and assists (six)…Simpson had missed 10 consecutive 3-pointers before knocking down his game-winner…WSU entered the game as the Pac-12’s top 3-point shooting team but went a combined 10-for-39 (.256) while getting swept at Utah and CU…Sunday’s effort marked the first time the Buffs have shot at least 50% while scoring under 60 points since a 60-53 loss at Missouri on Feb. 23, 2008 (51.1%).