BOULDER - It was a steep climb out and the trail only gets steeper, but the Colorado Buffaloes finally surfaced on Sunday at the Coors Events Center. Opening with another stellar defensive performance then staying above ground with a season-best effort from the free throw line, CU beat California 81-71 to even its Pac-12 Conference record at 4-4.
The Buffs began conference play 1-4, and in that nowhere-to-go-but-up context, reaching .500 "is really a positive sign," said CU coach Tad Boyle. "But when we were 1-4, we wanted to get to 2-4 . . . we worried about the next game. But we're not happy being 4-4; we have to win the next game and keep scratching and clawing and move our way up."
Did we mention the trail only gets steeper?
Three consecutive road games await, beginning Saturday at Utah, followed by trips to first-place Oregon (Thursday, Feb. 7) and struggling Oregon State (Sunday, Feb. 10). The Buffs don't return to the CEC until Feb. 14, when Arizona visits.
But with January waning, CU appears to be shaping up, even though at times Sunday it was hard to tell. Said Boyle: "The game was one of those deals where our shooting (59.6 percent) overcame a lot of other ills and some deficiencies we know we have to get better at."
Topping his list were the 20 CU turnovers that led to 22 Cal points. There also were the Bears' 53 second-half points - 33 of them attributable to guards Allen Crabbe and Justin Cobbs, who finally got untracked after nearly silent first halves and helped whittle an 18-point Buffs lead to eight in the final minute.
"We let them get closer than we should have," Boyle said.
But in the final 60 seconds, Spencer Dinwiddie hit eight consecutive free throws to keep the Buffs afloat. For the afternoon, he hit 9-of-10, leading CU to its best foul-shooting performance of the season - 18-of-22 (81.8 percent).
Finishing with 16 points, Dinwiddie was one of four CU players in double figures. Askia Booker scored 20, Xavier Johnson added 18 and Andre Roberson 15. Johnson, a 6-6 freshman, also collected 12 rebounds for his first career double.
Roberson played only 2 first-half minutes due to foul problems and was limited to five rebounds after his 20-board performance against Stanford on Thursday. He led the nation in rebounding (11.9) entering the game.
But despite his first-half foul problems and those of Josh Scott, who missed the half's last 7:53 after picking up his second foul, the Buffs prospered before intermission. That was mainly due to Johnson, who stepped up Roberson's absence and got 10 of his points and eight of his rebounds before the break.
"You could make a legitimate argument that he was the game's offensive MVP," Boyle said. "He was terrific . . . he's really grown up."
When Roberson went to the bench, Johnson said he "felt like I needed to help in rebounding . . . Andre is a big part (of that)."
Cal (11-8, 3-4) was led by Cobbs with 22 points - 16 in the second half, and Crabbe added 21 - 17 of those in the second half. But in combining for their 43 points, they needed almost that many shots between them - and Boyle said he could live with that: "They made some tough shots . . . if they're going to get 43 points you want them to take 41 shots to get them."
CU's lock-down defense in the first half - Cal was limited to 20.6 percent from the field - and the Buffs' overall strong board work - a 35-30 rebound advantage - created enough of a cushion before Cobbs and Crabbe began finding their groove in the final 20 minutes.
The Buffs led 34-18 at halftime and shot 50 percent from the field (13-for-26). But that percentage at times belied their offensive efficiency. After taking a nine-point lead (14-5) on consecutive treys by Booker, CU went nearly 7 minutes without scoring again.
That drought wasn't fatal, though, because the Buffs defense nearly had the Bears clamped shut. Cal's 18 first-half points were its lowest this season. But with Crabbe and Cobbs heating up, the Bears finished the game at 41.7 percent from the field - slightly above Boyle's defensive goal.
"I thought we got tired," he said. "'XJ' was exhausted; he's not used to playing 18 minutes in the first half. But they were tired, too . . . then when Cobbs and Crabbe started making shots, it's amazing how that energizes you."
Booker (13) and Johnson (10) were CU's only two players in double figures in the first half, while Cal had no one totaling more than six points. Crabbe (19.6 ppg) and Cobbs (14.3 ppg) were held to four and six points, respectively.
Roberson and Scott were back in the Buffs lineup to open the second half, but their return didn't prevent the Bears from a 7-0 start to pull Cal to 34-25 in the first 1:34. Crabbe scored five of those seven points, prompting a timeout from Boyle.
On that possession, the Buffs got a layup from Johnson, then one of two free throws by Roberson to restore their double-digit lead (37-27). Three minutes later, Booker's fourth trey of the game pushed CU ahead by 14 (46-32), and if Cal felt this one slipping away, that feeling was justified.
By the 9:05 mark, the Buffs had gone up 58-40 - matching their big lead of the afternoon - on a layup by Johnson. But with Crabbe hitting back-to-back treys, the Bears crept to within 65-54 with 4:06 to play.
Then it was Cobbs' turn. Scoring nine consecutive points, he pulled the Bears to within nine (73-64) in the final 1:05. A trey by Tyrone Wallace got them to 75-67, but Dinwiddie was perfect on eight free throw attempts in the last minute to keep the Buffs safe.
Cal's hot second-half shooting (60.5 percent) and closing to within eight points late, said Dinwiddie, were the result of "mental lapses. As much as you preach playing the possession, I think all of us as a team look at the scoreboard and say, 'Look, we're up 12, then we hit a three and we're up 15.'
"When that starts to roll downhill a little bit and you're only up eight, then you have to tighten the screws a little bit. Sometimes you can't."
Nonetheless, the win put CU (14-6 overall) in fifth place in the Pac-12, trailing Washington (4-3), the two Arizona schools (5-2), UCLA (6-2) and Oregon (7-0). Dinwiddie called the win "very important. To say you don't look at the standings would be a lie. You don't focus on them, but you look at them.
"We knew that people on top of us were playing each other . . . these (Stanford and Cal) are two very big wins. We're going to look to go to Utah and just continue to win the next game."