Well, it happened again. Colorado held a 14-point lead with just over seven minutes to play in their season finale against the Utah Utes, but proceeded to bleed it out under the pressure of a tough road atmosphere. A 16-0 run for the Buffs immediately turned into a 19-0 run for Utah; a decisive counter that spoiled a strong second half start. To outsiders, it was shocking; to us in BuffNation, it was just another day at the office. The turn was eerily similar to the events of a few weeks ago in Los Angeles, and of other vanishing leads throughout the season. In the end, CU took the hard loss, this time by a final score of 57-55.
The shame of it, up to the point of the Utah run, was that CU had been playing a near-perfect half of basketball. They were owning the glass in the second half, had been staying away from turnovers, and playing a typically intense brand of defense. While the offense was spotty (had been spotty all game), the Buffs were winning in the margins, and seemed to be on their way to a typical #TadBall brand of grind-it-out win. The big hero was Tory Miller. The sophomore forward came alive in the second frame, putting up a huge 7/6 line that fueled the run. Combined with some timely first half shooting from Tre'Shaun Fletcher and some scrappy early second half plays from Josh Scott (who had an otherwise rough game), it was enough to get the Buffs going. Then, the team simply turtled the minute the Utes showed a second half pulse. Factors compounded. The refs swallowed their whistles, every break went to the home side, and no one in Black and Gold could make a winning play. It was a complete, total momentum shift. To my surprise, Coach Boyle even called timeouts (twice!) in an attempt to forestall the run, but it didn't work. The players simply didn't, couldn't get it done.
You can credit the Utes all you want, but when you see the same story from Colorado opponents time and time again, at some point you need to look at the common denominator. The problem is roster construction. There's a good basketball team out there, running around, that much is clear. They have a fatal weakness, however. Colorado just does not have a lead guard who, late in the game, can get into the lane and draw a whistle. Without that, CU will continue to cough up seemingly insurmountable leads, particularly on the road, and will continue to drop big games. It's basic basketball arithmetic; otherwise you have to play perfect down the stretch to survive. College hoops, as always, is a guard-driven game.
It's a painful opportunity lost. CU missed their chance at a record-setting 22nd regular season win, a chance to make a profound statement about the resilience and resolve of this program. As it is, the Buffs still exceeded expectations all year long, eclipsing essentially all preseason projections. When they get selected to the NCAA Tournament this coming Sunday, it will be a well-deserved recognition for the gritty work they've put in all winter. While there are a number of points this season that you point to where the team let opportunities split through their fingers, their regular season work, when viewed as a whole, is quite impressive.
With the frustration in Utah left in the rear view, attention now turns to Las Vegas and the 2016 Pac-12 Tournament. Thanks to USC's home loss to Oregon earlier on Saturday, Colorado will avoid the embarrassment of slipping into 6th. Indeed, they were locked into the 5th seed before the U12 timeout of the first half (due to the Cal win in Tempe), so the end result in SLC meant nothing for their positioning in the Pac-12 bracket. Wednesday afternoon, CU will play Washington State for the right to face Arizona the following day. The game with the Cougars will tip at 2:30 MT. Should the Buffs win, the story will be the same on Thursday against the Wildcats. I'll have my Day 1 preview up from six miles in the air on Wednesday morning.