TUCSON – The Colorado Buffaloes left Arizona’s McKale Center last season doubting they’d lost. The top-ranked Wildcats allowed no room for doubt on Thursday night.
Leading by as many as 20 points midway through the second half, Arizona disposed of CU 69-57, sending the Buffs to their third defeat in their last four Pac-12 Conference games. It was also CU’s fourth loss in six games against ranked opponents this season and its 16th all-time loss (no wins) against a top-ranked foe.
CU will try and salvage this season’s trip to the desert with a 5 p.m. game on Saturday at Arizona State.
The Wildcats (19-0, 6-0) led 39-24 at halftime and posted their first 20-point lead (51-31) on a reverse dunk by freshman Aaron Gordon with 15:02 to play. But the Buffs (15-5, 4-3) kept battling and came as close as 11 (66-55) on an Askia Booker layup with 1:15 remaining.
“We did a good job of battling back, even in the first half we cut it to six, but we couldn’t get over the hump. They are an explosive team,” CU coach Tad Boyle told KOA Radio. “There are some positive things we can take from this, but we have to be a better offensive executing team on the road . . . but when you leave a game like this, you have to focus on the positives. We won the second half (33-30) and that’s a sign of progress.”
The talented Gordon, who scored 12 points, was one of three Wildcats in double figures. Nick Johnson led Arizona with 18 and Brandon Ashley added 15, including seven of the Wildcats’ first 11 points as they raced to an 11-2 lead.
Xavier Johnson led CU with 21 points – one off his career high – and got assistance from Josh Scott (15 points, 11 rebounds) and Booker (11 points). Scott’s double-double was his ninth of the season and fourth in Pac-12 play.
Johnson made four of his five 3-point attempts and all three of his free throw tries. “X. Johnson plays well against these guys,” Boyle said. “There’s something about it; he’s amped for these guys, but we need that every time.”
CU committed 16 turnovers, leading to 23 Arizona points, while the Buffs got only 11 points from seven Wildcats turnovers – and Boyle called the Buffs’ 16 miscues “the tale of the game . . . they got 24 layups, we want that number to be seven or less. And they had 24.”
Arizona, allowing a conference-best 56.7 points a game, held CU to 60 or fewer points for only the second time this season. Baylor defeated the Buffs 72-60 in the season opener. The Wildcats, who shot 49.2 percent from the field, limited the Buffs to 38.5 percent shooting.
CU managed only six assists to Arizona’s 16, but held its own on the boards (32-32). The Buffs limited the Wildcats to two offensive boards in the second half after allowing nine in the first half. Still, Arizona ended the night with a 44-26 scoring edge in the paint.
The Wildcats have athletes, speed, skill and the advantage of a raucous, sold-out (14,545) building where they have now won 16 consecutive games and are 33-7 in Pac-12 games under coach Sean Miller. “When the crowd gets into it we have to be able to handle it,” Boyle said. “We have to learn to win in environments like this.”
With Thursday night’s 19th win of the season, Miller’s fifth UA team tied for the longest streak in program history. The Buffs now are 3-4 against the Wildcats since joining the Pac-12 in 2011.
CU last won in the McKale Center 54 years ago (Dec. 3, 1960), although much of the college hoops world believed the Buffs’ visit last season produced a “W.” But after Sabatino Chen’s 3-pointer at the final horn was waived off, Arizona won 92-83 in overtime.
Thursday night’s outcome never hinged on a buzzer beater.
CU never led, as Arizona jumped to a 9-0 lead and built its advantage to 13-2 before Askia Booker managed the Buffs’ first field goal with 14:35 left before intermission. The Wildcats surged ahead by as many as 14 (18-4) before the Buffs launched a 10-2 run, with Scott scoring seven of the 10 points, and pulled to within six (20-14) at the half’s 9:33 mark.
Instrumental in that CU rally was strategic shift on the defensive end: Boyle dusted off the 2-3 zone last employed in the Buffs 75-72 upset of Kansas in early December. Stunned initially, the Wildcats adjusted offensively and did a defensive clamp down of their own, not allowing a Buffs field goal for the next 6:33.
By then, Arizona had taken its largest lead of the half – 32-16. CU would go to its locker room trailing 39-24 and hoping to find some answers for the final 20 minutes.
The 15-point halftime deficit marked the third time in the past four games the Buffs have trailed by at least 13 points at the break. CU’s 29.6 percent from the field was second only to the 21.2 percent in the first half of the season-opening loss to Baylor.
CU still leads the overall series 11-9, but fell to 2-5 in games played at Arizona. The Wildcats’ win was their first against the Buffs in successive years since 1973 and 1974.