BOULDER – Colorado’s young Buffs are growing up, which means an occasional pain or two. For now, it’s nothing they can’t tolerate but it won’t stay that way much longer.
Ebbing and flowing Monday night at the Coors Events Center, CU alternately buried and revived Arkansas State before finally putting down the talented Red Wolves 93-70.
“Obviously, we’re happy with a 23-point win,” Buffs coach Tad Boyle said. “That was the good news. But I think again, like most games we’ve played this year, there’s a lot of things we can take from this one and learn from and get better from. And I think the thing that stands out for me tonight was defensive intensity.
“I thought we let up a little bit the first part of that second half, and part of that credit goes to Arkansas State. They’ve got good players; we knew that coming in . . . but we’ve got to have that killer instinct defensively. We let up a little bit and let them back in it. But we gained control of it and I was proud of our guys. There’s a lot of good things to build on.”
Let the construction work continue.
The Buffs (4-1) led by 18 points at halftime, by 20 in the opening seconds of the second half, then by only eight points with 13:30 remaining. Such are the mood swings for a team depending on four true freshman and a redshirt freshman for quality minutes.
CU ultimately took control against Arkansas State (2-2), which had lost 85-64 at Wyoming on Sunday, but it took a Spencer Dinwiddie three-pointer with 10:09 to play to restore a double-digit lead (68-56) and allow the Buffs to rediscover how to hit the accelerator. Dinwiddie, one of four CU players in double figures, had another fine floor game, hitting four of five field goal attempts (two-of-two threes) and three of four free throws for 13 points. He also had a game-high five assists and two steals.
But the Buffs’ high-point man was their growing low-post presence, Josh Scott, the 6-10 sophomore. His 20 points were one short of his career high. “They had a 6-7, although he was 250 pounds, and a 6-10 – but they were single-covering me and they weren’t digging hard,” Scott said. “If you’re going to give me that, I’m probably going to score. That’s pretty much all I can say about that.”
Also in double figures for the Buffs were freshmen George King (11) and Jaron Hopkins (10). Eleven of the 14 CU players in uniform scored, but for the second consecutive game the Buffs were without sophomore forward Xavier Johnson, who also missed Saturday’s game against Jackson State after being “dinged” in a late-week practice, according to Boyle.
Once again, Hopkins opened in Johnson’s place – and once again Hopkins was effective early, scoring five points on two free throws and a three-pointer in an 11-0 run that helped the Buffs open a 12-point (22-10) advantage. King also hit a pair of three-pointers during that surge and made good on a prophesy to roommate Tre’Shaun Fletcher.
“I noticed in warm-ups I wasn’t shooting the ball well, but in this one I focused on blocking everything out . . . . I told my roommate, ‘Fletch,’ I was going to hit a three in this game,” said King, who hit both of his three-point attempts as the Buffs hit nine for the second consecutive game.
But Boyle wasn’t necessarily pleased with that number, especially with the Buffs hitting only one of their first eight trey attempts and getting away from their offensive philosophy. They finished the half 6-of-15 from behind the arc and 9-of-23 for the game. Said Boyle: “I thought we got trigger happy in the first half with threes. We can’t live and die with those . . . we’re an inside-out team.”
Boyle previously had expressed a reluctance to have three freshmen on the court at the same time, but with Johnson out now for two games there is little choice at times. “I’d rather have it in a game like this,” Boyle said. “Hopefully in a couple of weeks I won’t look at them as freshmen. But our freshmen are growing up quick . . . tonight was another step in the right direction for them.”
CU trailed only once, allowing a trey by Melvin Johnson III – a 6-6 senior transfer from Texas-San Antonio – to open the scoring. Nothing out of the ordinary for Johnson; he entered the game having connected on 12-of-22 three-point tries in the Red Wolves’ first three games and was the team’s leading scorer (16.7 ppg).
He finished as Monday night’s leading scorer with 25 and teammate Brandon Reed added 21. But they were the only Red Wolves to score in the first half; their teammates went 0-for-13. Kirk Van Slyke, a 6-10 post, added 15 points, but aside from the Red Wolves’ brief second-half spurt they simply couldn’t keep pace with the Buffs’ mostly young guns.
CU pushed ahead 40-22 with 4:05 left before intermission, and at halftime, the Buffs were still up by 18 – 46-28. There was little reason to think the Red Wolves could catch up in the final 20 minutes, but they gave it a shot – a three-point shot. They hit five of their seven treys after intermission, pulling to within eight points twice before the Buffs decided ‘D’ might be necessary.
CU held A-State to 28.6 percent from the field (8-of-28) in the first 20 minutes, but 53.3 percent second-half shooting brought the Red Wolves to 41.4 percent for the game (24-of-58).
“I think we locked them up pretty well in first half . . . we chased them off the three-point line,” Scott said. “Coming out of the half, we didn’t find their shooters. They hit some good shots (but) we finally got locked in and got the win by a large margin.”
After Dinwiddie fed Hopkins for an alley-oop slam to open a 20-point lead (48-28) seconds into the second half, CU appeared to be cruising. But over the next 51/2 minutes, the Red Wolves outscored the Buffs 19-7, taking advantage of a familiar CU deficiency – perimeter defense.
A-State used four three-pointers during that span to pull to within 55-47 with just over 14 minutes remaining. But the visitors from Jonesboro, Ark., could get no closer than eight points the rest of the night.
The Buffs surged to a 25-point lead, 90-65, on a Beau Gamble-assisted Ben Mills stuff with 1:45 to play. Sophomore walk-on Brett Brady got the Buffs to 93 with a three-pointer in the final minute and the CEC crowd of 8,204 roared its approval.
Boyle wants the roaring – as well as the attendance – to increase. The Buffs’ six-game home stand begins to wind down Thursday when UC-Santa Barbara visits the CEC (6 p.m.). On Sunday afternoon (2:30 p.m.), Harvard visits, and Boyle said the Buffs need to “get our minds right” for both games.
“The last two weeks this team has gotten better,” he said. “You can feel it offensively and defensively (but) Santa Barbara is a different caliber team, Harvard is a different caliber team. We’ll find out in the next two games how great those strides have been.”