LAS VEGAS — Above all else, Colorado head coach Tad Boylestresses defense and rebounding.
Those two building blocks of the Buffaloes program came in handy in a big way Wednesday. Colorado overcame a season-high 23 turnovers with a stellar effort on defense and on the boards, and McKinley Wright IV scored 18 points to lead the Buffs to a 56-51 win over Cal in the first round of the Pac-12 tournament at T-Mobile Arena.
The Buffs were not at their best, but their fourth straight win improved their record to 20-11 overall and moved them into a 3:30 p.m. Thursday quarterfinal matchup with Oregon State. The win gave CU head coach Tad Boyle' his sixth 20-win season in his nine years in Boulder, and the Buffs' 10th in program history.
"That was the epitome of winning ugly," Boyle said. "Probably an understatement. But I told these guys in the locker room our program is built on defense and rebounding for a reason. It's for days like this, games like this, when the offense is not functioning the way we want it to function, that we find a way to win a game, by guarding, by rebounding. We did a tremendous job, and that's why we won today."
Wright scored his points on 7-for-9 shooting, including four 3-pointers to tie a career high. D'Shawn Schwartz added 11 points — nine in the second half — and eight rebounds for the Buffs and Tyler Bey had eight points and 11 rebounds. Bey missed his sixth straight double-double, but salted away the win with two free throws with 2.4 seconds left on the clock.
Matt Bradley led Cal with 20 points.
The fifth-seeded Buffs led for most of the game, but their biggest lead never surpassed 10 points, as the No. 12 Bears refused to go away quietly. But Colorado's defense and rebounding made up for the turnover issues. The Buffs held a commanding 40-19 lead on the boards and held Cal to under 35 percent shooting (16-for-47) for the game.
"I think we were rushing a lot of things tonight," Wright said. "We were anxious to go out and play the first round of the tournament. And to make 23 turnovers was too much. We're happy to get out with a win. We'll be better tomorrow, especially taking care of the ball."
HOW IT HAPPENED: Colorado took the lead for good, 13-12, with 12 minutes still to play in the first half on a Wright 3-pointer. The Buffs built their first-half lead to as much as nine, and still led by six at the half, 28-22.
But the Bears opened the second half with a 7-2 run to cut CU's edge to one — thanks in large part to four Colorado turnovers in five possessions — and they managed to stay within striking distance the rest of the game.
Still, every time the Bears threatened to take the lead, the Buffs answered, with Wright and Schwartz both delivering key 3-pointers at different junctures to keep Cal at bay.
Wright hit a trey at the 15:12 mark and Schwartz added one from the top of the key three minutes later to give CU a five-point lead. Colorado then emerged from the timeout to score five in a row to push its cushion to 10, getting a 3-pointer from Shane Gatling and a Wright drive to the rim to give CU a 45-35 edge at the 10:23 mark.
The Bears, though, fought back to close the gap back to three, putting together a 7-0 run to pull within 50-47 with 3:42 to play.
Schwartz, however, answered with his third 3-pointer and the Bears never came closer than three again. Bey finally put the game away with two free throws with 2.4 seconds left on the clock to close out the game.
Wright said he had to convince Schwartz to start shooting in the second half after the CU sophomore passed up some open shots in the first half. Schwartz finished an efficient 4-for-6 from the field, including 3-for-5 from beyond the arc.
"I told him he's too good of a shooter to be passing up looks like that," Wright said. "I've been trying to tell him that for a while. Before the game I told him he's got to get up at least five threes. He passed up some open ones tonight, but down the stretch he told me he was going to make some big ones, and he did just that. I'm happy for him and just have him keep shooting."
Boyle took the blame for some of Schwartz's hesitation.
"I'll say this about D'Shawn, sometimes he's so coachable, and I think McKinley knows this, there's times he should just shut the coaches' words out of his mind and just go play," Boyle said. "We want to get paint touches before we got threes. And D'Shawn passed up some really good looks in the first half, especially, where he could have pulled the trigger. But he's doing what I asked him to do, so I appreciate that. But there are times he needs to go make a play or make a shot. And that's what good players do. That's what McKinley did, and D'Shawn, Shane did it."
Schwartz said his teammates urged him to take the open shots when he had the chance.
"I think I could step up and help us when needed," he said. "McKinley and other guys were telling me to shoot after passing up some shots on the first half."
The Buffs' 23 turnovers surpassed their previous season high by four — but their 19-turnover games both ended in losses (Indiana State and Washington).
Despite 12 first-half turnovers, the Buffs still held a 28-22 lead at half, thanks to a defense that held the Bears to 32 percent shooting (8-for-25) over the first 20 minutes.
Colorado started slowly, as Cal jumped out to leads of 6-0 and 9-3. But the Buffs slowly climbed back into the game, taking their first lead on a Wright 3-pointer at the 13:05 mark, then going ahead for good, 13-12, on another Wright trey with 12:10 to go.
The Buffs put together a 13-2 run over an eight-minute span in half to take a 23-14 edge, and held the Bears to just one field goal over a nine-minute stretch. Freshman Daylen Kountz sparked the run with back-to-back steals and dunks.
Cal finally ended its drought with two baskets in the last three minutes of the half to cut Colorado's lead to six by halftime.
TURNING POINT: While the Buffs led for most of the game, they couldn't put the Bears away until the very end. Colorado's defense forced a turnover and a Cal miss in the final 45 seconds to collect the win.
WHAT IT MEANS: Along with Boyle's sixth 20-win season, the win also was CU's eighth in as many tries in the first game of the Pac-12 tournament, and the Buffs' ninth conference tournament-opening win (Big 12 in 2011). Colorado now has a chance to advance to the Pac-12 semifinals for only the third time and the first time since 2014.
KEY STATISTICS: The Buffs held Cal to 34 percent shooting from the floor (16-for-47) while also dominating the boards, 40-19. CU also outscored the Bears 20-16 in the paint.
QUOTEWORTHY: "I'm proud of these guys, and they've shown great progress through the year. And I know they are hungry. They're not satisfied with where we are right now. We just have to continue to get better, and we'll do that tomorrow." — CU head coach Tad Boyle
UP NEXT: The Buffs face No. 4 seed Oregon State (18-12 overall, 10-8 Pac-12) in a 3:30 p.m. matchup at T-Mobile Arena on Thursday. Colorado lost its first meeting this year with the Beavers, a 76-74 decision in late January in Boulder.