BOULDER – On a cold, snowy Colorado night, if the guys from the desert needed a blanket, their hosts were happy to oblige. The Buffaloes draped themselves over No. 9 Arizona, smothering the Pac-12 Conference’s highest-scoring team and leaving a delirious Coors Events Center with a resume-enhancing, think-Big-Dancing 71-58 win.
As nasty as CU’s defense was in limiting Arizona to its lowest point total of the season, the offense provided by sophomore Spender Dinwiddie and freshman Xavier Johnson was Valentine’s Night sweet for the Buffs. Dinwiddie finished with a game-high 21, Johnson with a career-high 19.
But they had loads of help in different areas. Sophomore guard Askia Booker added 10 points, two assists and three steals, and junior Andre Roberson contributed seven points and a game-best 13 rebounds to move past Cliff Meely into second place (978) on the school’s board list.
“It was a great atmosphere for college basketball,” CU coach Tad Boyle said. “The whole state of Colorado can be proud . . . this had nothing to do with revenge, but everything to do with respect for Arizona. They’ll win a lot of games as the season unfolds, but we will, too.”
Particularly if the Buffs continue to play ‘D’ as they have over the past month. The Wildcats came into the game averaging 76.2 points a game and featured two of the league’s top nine scorers in Mark Lyons (17.5) and Solomon Hill (15.4). Lyons got 11 points, Hill 12 on Thursday night as the Wildcats were limited to 42.3 percent from the field.
CU entered the night as the Pac-12 leader in scoring defense (64.2 ppg) and field goal percentage (40.6). But Boyle said his team’s defensive effort on Thursday was nothing short of a milestone in his time at CU.
“From start to finish, yes,” he said. “We made them work for everything. When we have a break down defensively now, our players know it and it burns at them, which is a great sign. We were dialed in – and we made some shots.”
“Some,” indeed. The Buffs checked out at 50 percent from the field, including 59.1 percent in the second half when the Wildcats cut a 15-point deficit to nine on two occasions and closed to within six with 10:35 to play. Dinwiddie scored 19 of his total in the final 20 minutes and added a career-best seven assists.
Of his assists, Dinwiddie said: “I didn’t play too much different . . . I have got to give thanks to this person (Xavier Johnson); he made a ton of shots, a bunch of threes. Without him I don’t get those assists, a lot of those are him.”
The Buffs finished nine of 17 from behind the three-point arc, with Johnson going four-for-five and Dinwiddie two-for-five. Freshman reserve Xavier Talton each hit their only three-point attempt and Booker was good on one of his four trey tries. Talton’s trey was only his second of the season, but it was undoubtedly his biggest, coming after Arizona had closed to 45-39.
In winning its fourth straight and sixth of its last seven games, CU (17-7, 7-5) avenged its 92-83 overtime loss in Tucson on Jan. 3. Arizona (20-4, 8-4) lost its second consecutive game and was shoved out of a first-place Pac-12 tie with UCLA and Oregon.
The Buffs, defeating a Top 25 team for the second time in three games, improved to 11-1 in the CEC this season and went to 42-5 at home under Boyle. CU won 48-47 at No. 19 Oregon a week ago.
On Valentine’s Night, the CEC was the place to be. The sellout crowd (11,120) included John Elway and former Buffs linebacker Matt Russell, now Elway’s right hand man with the Broncos; former CU kicker Mason Crosby (Green Bay) and his wife; and former Buffs hoopsters Alec Burks (Utah Jazz) and Shannon Sharpe.
With the building’s decibel level cranked past deafening, they watched a first half that saw CU start by missing consecutive layups on consecutive possessions, then settle in and stifle Arizona.
By halftime, CU had matched its largest lead of the first 20 minutes, with its 30-23 advantage produced by a 10-3 run over the half’s last 6:12. Johnson and Booker got the surge started with back-to-back treys, followed by Shane Harris-Tunks’ baby hook and a Roberson stuff.
Johnson (12) was CU’s only player in double figures, but the Buffs’ defense allowed the offense any slack it needed. No Arizona player reached double figures in the first 20 minutes, with Lyons and Angelo Chol managing six points each.
The second-half start was nothing like the first for the Buffs. Scoring the half’s first eight points – three free throws by Dinwiddie, a Dinwiddie stuff and a trey by Roberson – they went up by 15 (38-23) with 17:52 to play.
The Wildcats needed a timeout – and maybe it helped. They got their first points of the half on a trey by Lyons, then another by Nick Johnson and cut the Buffs’ lead to 38-29 with 16:05 remaining.
CU’s answer: a long triple by Dinwiddie as the shot clock wound down and a step-back jumper by Booker. The Buffs’ lead went to 14 (43-29), but the Wildcats got two of three free throws from Grant Jerrett and a Lyons layup to close to 43-33.
Arizona pulled as close as six points (45-39) before Talton drained his trey, Dinwiddie following with a spinning layup, then adding a triple to restore a 14-point (53-39) Buffs advantage with just under 10 minutes to play.
Boyle lauded Booker for urging his coach to leave Talton in. “I was ready to put ‘Ski’ in, but ‘Ski’ said let him (Talton) go,” Boyle said. “I played him another three or four minutes . . . when you’ve got players like that, putting their best interests behind the team’s, you’ve got a chance to have something special. I’m proud of ‘Ski;’ that wouldn’t have happened last year.”
A layup by Talton 2 minutes later pushed CU ahead by 15 (56-41), giving the Buffs their largest lead of the night. Over the final 7 minutes, Arizona trimmed its deficit to nine points twice, but Johnson answered the second surge with back-to-back treys. When Booker hit a one-handed leaner, CU had another 15-point lead (68-53) with 2:38 remaining.
The Buffs had watched a 17-point lead evaporate in Tucson, but no way it would happen in the rematch. All that remained was for the CU student body to rush court – and this time no one questioned whether it was justified.
CU hosts Arizona State Saturday (7 p.m., ESPNU), and Boyle said the Buffs need another shot of Thursday night’s CEC energy: “We need that same kind of atmosphere; they (fans) were part of this victory.”