LAS VEGAS — The Colorado men’s basketball team got some payback against a team that defeated the Buffaloes twice during the regular season.
CU will have a chance to do the same thing on Thursday. But the challenge will be much more difficult.
Colorado advanced out of the first round of the Pac-12 Conference tournament on Wednesday by knocking off Washington 74-68 at T-Mobile Arena. The ninth-seeded Buffs will play top-seeded UCLA in the quarterfinals on Thursday, and while the Bruins topped CU in a pair of tightly-contested games during the regular season, they also enter the league tournament dealing with a devastating injury setback to Jaylen Clark.
“This tournament now starts,” CU head coach Tad Boyle said. “This was kind of the warm-up game, so to speak, and now we’re faced with playing UCLA, who’s one of the top teams in the country. Who just had an injury to their lineup.
“We know what they’re all about. We’ve battled them. We’ve come up short, just like we had battled Washington and came up short. But UCLA’s a different animal. They’re the best team in our league. We’ve got to get rest, get these guys off our feet, and be ready to rock and roll (Thursday).”
The Buffs twice played stellar defense against the No. 2-ranked Bruins during the regular season but fell short both times. CU led by nine points in Los Angeles on Jan. 14 before the Bruins caught fire and outscored the Buffs 33-10 the rest of the way. A week and a half ago in Boulder, CU led by a point with 3 minutes, 10 seconds remaining before dropping a four-point decision.
UCLA dominated the year-end conference awards released on Tuesday, with Jaime Jaquez winning Player of the Year and Mick Cronin winning Coach of the Year. Clark was named the league’s Defensive Player of the Year, but his absence will force a significant adjustment for the Bruins.
Clark, who was injured during UCLA’s win against Arizona in the regular season finale on Saturday, also was averaging 13.0 points with a .481 field goal percentage. Clark hit the Buffs for 18 points in Los Angeles but struggled in Boulder, going 3-for-11 with eight points. Clark’s 78 steals this season tied for the third-most in UCLA’s storied history.
“It’s just the toughness part. The first game, we were up I don’t know how much with 12 minutes to go and we kind of gave the game away,” CU forward Luke O’Brien said. “They outrebounded us. They were more tougher on defense. And I thought the game at home, we just couldn’t make shots down the stretch. But I feel like that’s what we’ve got to do. We’ve just got to take care of the ball for 40 minutes and make plays.”
Their contributions didn’t stand out as much as Julian Hammond’s career-high 21 points, or O’Brien’s double-double, but CU’s victory against Washington included key plays from role players like Ethan Wright and Lawson Lovering.
Wright knocked down his first 3-point attempt but struggled from long range the rest of the way, going 1-for-6 from the arc. However, he finished with nine points and matched a pair of season-highs with five rebounds and three assists. Wright didn’t record a turnover in 29-plus minutes and had a key play with 6:08 remaining, grabbing an offensive rebound and kicking out to Hammond for an assist on a critical 3-pointer.
Lovering continued his recent solid play by going 4-for-6 with nine points and five rebounds, recording only one turnover in 29:29 of playing time. Lovering has averaged 7.8 points and 5.6 rebounds in the past five games.
“I feel like you can see out there the strides he’s made throughout the season,” CU forward Tristan da Silva said. “I feel like he’s way more comfortable out there. His presence in general is just really beneficial for this team. He’s putting pressure on the rim at all times. And defensively, he’s one of our main guys in communicating and being right with our ball-screen coverage and stuff like that. He’s a huge part of our defense.”
“As long as he’s not kissing our guys, we’re good. Hopefully next week, if we’re playing, we’ll get him re-tested and hopefully be ready to go.”
–Boyle on starting guard KJ Simpson, who is sidelined for the Pac-12 tournament due to mono but could return next week if the Buffs land an NIT bid.
Da Silva matched a career-high with five assists. … Wright has logged his most minutes of the season in the past two games, playing 32 in a win against Utah in the regular season finale before playing 29:13 against UW. … CU went 5-for-20 on 3-pointers and finished 13-for-56 (.232) from the arc in three games against the Huskies. … CU’s 16 assists was its most this season against a Pac-12 foe and tied for the second-most this season. The Buffs also recorded 16 assists in three nonconference games and had a season-high 22 in a Nov. 18 win against Texas A&M. … CU used 15 offensive rebounds to post a 21-7 advantage on second-chance points. … Maybe Hammond should be nicknamed the Husky Hunter. Three of Hammond’s top five top-scoring games in his career have occurred against UW — 14 last year as a freshman, 18 on Jan. 19 at CU, and a career-high 21 on Wednesday. The sophomore guard owns a 9-for-15 mark (.600) on 3-pointers in five career games against the Huskies. … Hammond has gone exactly 5-for-5 at the free throw line in each of his three starts this season.