LAS VEGAS - Let the waiting game begin. A year ago, the Colorado Buffaloes wrung the suspense out of Selection Sunday by winning the Pac-12 Conference Tournament and earning an automatic berth in the NCAA Tournament.
This year, it's not that clear-cut although the Buffs believe their NCAA case has been stated - even in Thursday's 79-69 quarterfinal loss to No. 18 Arizona in the Pac-12 Conference Tournament.
No. 5 seed CU rallied dramatically, cutting a 14-point lead by No. 4 seed Arizona to two in the final 63 seconds. But the Wildcats held on and left the Buffs holding their collective breath for one of 37 NCAA at-large bids.
"We're one of the top 37 teams in my mind," said CU coach Tad Boyle. "But it's not for me to say."
But Boyle did cite his argument for the Buffs, who finished 21-11 for their third consecutive 20-win season under Boyle. Last March, after punching the Pac-12's free ticket, they advanced to the NCAA second round before being eliminated by Baylor in Albuquerque. This March, Boyle cited CU's strength of schedule (No. 19), the overall strength of the Pac-12 this season, CU's league-low 15 home games and the return of Andre Roberson as reasons for the Buffs to be given strong NCAA consideration.
The Buffs finished the season 4-3 against Top 25 teams and were 9-9 against opponents in the top 100 RPI. CU's pre-game RPI on Thursday was in the low 30s. It all appears to give the Buffs impeccable NCAA credentials. Yet as Boyle said, inclusion in the 68-team NCAA field isn't for him or his players to determine despite "what we did over our whole body of work."
The work finished in dramatic if unfulfilling fashion as the Buffs overcame an enigmatic and sloppy start to push the Wildcats harder than they might have expected after the first 20 minutes.
Arizona, said Boyle, "played a hell of a game. You could tell from the very beginning they were ready to go." But it took more than a little while for the Buffs to find the same gear; they trailed 39-28 after a first half that saw them commit 10 of their 13 turnovers (leading to 15 first-half Arizona points) and hit only five of 12 free throw attempts.
With 12:24 left in the game, CU fell behind by 14 before tightening up its defense, rebounding more tenaciously and eventually closing to within 71-69 on a pair of Andre Roberson free throws with 1:03 remaining. But Arizona's Nick Johnson scored a layup between two CU defenders at the other end to push the Wildcats up four.
Then two free throws by guard Mark Lyons with 23.6 seconds left gave Arizona a comfortable six-point advantage. The Wildcats added four more free throws in the final 14.2 seconds to win by double digits.
"Coach Boyle always preaches defend and rebound, and I felt like that's when started to do that and we had a run," said Roberson, who collected his 37th career double-double (15 points, 11 rebounds). "I feel like we just didn't do it consistently throughout the whole 40 minutes. That's how we fell off in the first half, and that's how we got back into the game in the second half."
CU outrebounded Arizona 33-31, but allowed the Wildcats to shoot 45.2 percent for the game. The Buffs' goal is to hold opponents below 40 percent from the field. Arizona also got 25 points from a bench that Boyle says offers "the most quality depth of anybody in our league . . . they go ten deep."
When the Buffs were surging back, Lyons hit what Boyle called "the play of the game." With a second showing on the shot clock and Arizona cradling a 68-64 lead, Lyons (14 points, three assists, one steal) took an inbounds pass and fired desperately from the left corner. It swished and CU's momentum took a hit.
Boyle called the quick inbounds play "a breakdown on our part defensively. We've practiced that situation. We just didn't do what we were supposed to do and it cost us."
If Lyons' three-point prayer had competition as "the play of the game," one that followed by Nick Johnson deserved special consideration.
After the Buffs had pulled to 71-69, Johnson scored in the lane between Roberson and Xavier Johnson to push the Wildcats back up by four. Roberson said Nick Johnson "was stuck in the key looking for a teammate . . . he didn't have any other option but to go up with it. Maybe I could have been a little more aggressive, but 'XJ' was trapping him. He just made a tough shot."
The fourth-seeded Wildcats (25-6) play top-seeded UCLA (24-8) in one of Friday's semifinals at the MGM Grand Garden Arena, which saw a record crowd of 12,915 on Thursday afternoon.
CU, which defeated Arizona 53-51 last season for the inaugural Pac-12 championship in Los Angeles, was led by Spencer Dinwiddie with 18 points. Askia Booker contributed 12 and Xavier Johnson 11. Arizona had three players in double figures, topped by Nick Johnson's 18. The Wildcats hit nine of their 27 three-point attempts, while the Buffs were 5-of-12 from beyond the arc and finished 20-of-28 from the free throw line.
The Buffs took their only lead of the game on the first possession, getting a dunk from Dinwiddie on a baseline drive. From there, the afternoon looked as if it belonged to Arizona. The first half's last half minute providing a snapshot of the Buffs' early deficiencies. After closing to within eight (36-28) on a put-back by Roberson, CU forced a turnover and had possession with 23.8 seconds left before the break.
But Sabatino Chen couldn't in-bound the ball in the allotted five seconds and Arizona regained possession. The Wildcats worked the clock to five seconds before Solomon Hill drove the lane for a layup. Roberson fouled him and Hill converted the three-point play, saddling CU with its second-worst (11 points) halftime deficit of the season.
The worst was 19 at Kansas, and that game didn't end well for CU - a 90-54 smack down in Allen Fieldhouse.
CU's bench, which was outscored 18-4 in the first half, took a hit when 6-11 Shane Harris-Tunks was hit in the head with 12:45 left before the break. He went to the locker room for evaluation and was not cleared to play in the second half. It didn't sit well with Boyle.
Asked afterward about Harris-Tunks' condition, he said, "Let me say this about Shane: We've had two blatant no-calls that have led to concussions on our basketball team (Josh Scott was the other) and I'm really disappointed about it."
Harris-Tunks' departure and two early fouls on the 6-10 Scott resulted in five rare first-half minutes for 7-0 junior Ben Mills, who had one point and two rebounds in that time. Boyle said he was "proud of him for doing it tonight in a very tough environment."
With 12:24 remaining, a three-pointer from the left corner by Jordin Mayes pushed the Wildcats ahead 54-40. If the Buffs couldn't see trouble ahead, they weren't looking. But maybe that was a good thing.
Down by 14 after Mayes' trey, Dinwiddie hit a pair of free throws, Xavier Talton scored a layup on a fast break, and Dinwiddie knocked down a three in transition.
Suddenly, Arizona's 14-point led had been cut in half (56-47) with 10 minutes to play. The Buffs pulled to within four three times in the final 3:13, the last time on a Booker three with 1:50 remaining. After an Arizona turnover 30 seconds later, Boyle - with his team trailing 71-67 - called a timeout.
Roberson was fouled on a drive to the hoop and his two foul shots made it a two-point game, but that was as close as the Buffs could get.
Arizona coach Sean Miller said the Wildcats "beat an excellent basketball team . . . we needed to play extremely hard to beat a team like Colorado. You think about Colorado being seeded fifth, it really shows the depth and quality of our conference from top to bottom."
Boyle and the Buffs hope the NCAA Selection Committee sees it that way, but they'll have to wait to find out.