ALBUQUERQUE, N.M. – The NCAA tournament had its epic near-miss earlier Thursday when 16-seed UNC Asheville couldn’t close out Syracuse.
The controversy about the officiating contributed to it being the most discussed game of the day.
VCU became a storyline yet again with a final-possessions win over Wichita State, remaining relevant for a second year in a row.
There were plenty of impressive performances, notably Gonzaga’s pummeling of West Virginia in Pittsburgh. But for the most part the chalk held.
Except at the end of the night.
The Pac-12 has been rightfully beaten down throughout the season. Washington, the regular-season champ, didn’t even get a bid. Cal didn’t put up much of a fight against a middling South Florida in a First Four game in Dayton, Ohio, adding even more insult to the league’s off-year.
But if an underdog or Cinderella can still come from a BCS league (in football terminology), then Colorado fits the description.
This simply shouldn’t be happening. But it is.
The Buffs, picked to finish 11th in the league to start the season, won the Pac-12 tournament with four wins in four days and have moved into the third round of the NCAAs after holding on to beat No. 6 seed UNLV 68-60 Thursday night at the Pit.
Maybe even more surprising than the score and the Buffs moving on is how much they have become a hoops haven.
The Colorado crowd was by far the most boisterous of any of the eight teams in attendance. The raw euphoria from fans young and old had the security at the Pit sprinting out in anticipation that Buffs backers might actually storm the court. A number of fans, who were a part of an impressive CU contingent of about 2,500, had started to move down to the lower level, gathering right above the band in what looked like a precursor to a storm.
But this is the NCAA tournament, where storming is as forbidden as taking a Coke can onto the floor without an approved plastic cup cover.
“I feel like our guys are playing well, playing with a lot of confidence and we’re just going to try to keep it rolling,’’ said Colorado’s Andre Roberson. “I just feel like we can take down Baylor coming up.’’
Baylor is by far the most athletic, longest, deepest and talented team Colorado will have faced all season. No one in the Pac-12 would have come close.
But why would Colorado feel like anything is impossible? The Buffs actually used Connecticut’s five-games-in-five-days Big East tournament title run of a year ago as motivation prior to the Pac-12 tournament.
Victories over Utah, Oregon, Cal and Arizona just continued the improbable roll.
UNLV was next, and while the Runnin’ Rebels had moments of confusion at times in the final month of the season, they surely would outrebound and run past CU, right?
Not quite. CU outrebounded the Rebels by 13.
“I did think that they played with a greater sense of urgency than we did,’’ said UNLV coach Dave Rice.
The rarity of Colorado in this position was quickly pointed out by the CU administration on a postgame release. The Buffs had never won five games in a row March. That’s never — as in has never happened. The last time the Buffs won a game in the NCAA tournament, Chauncey Billups was the point guard and it was 1997.
“I don’t think I was born yet,’’ said Roberson. “No, I know I was. I don’t know.’’
“I was 3,’’ CU’s Askia Booker said. “I was 3.’’
The Buffs have a collection of gritty guys who would pale in comparison to Baylor’s length — and yet to dismiss them would be a major error in judgment. Roberson and Spencer Dinwiddie can block shots with the Baylor bigs Quincy Acy and Perry Jones III. Shooters like Austin Dufault, Carlon Brown and Booker can all match Brady Heslip on 3s. And the Buffs can actually win despite making turnovers (23 Thursday).
“We believe in ourselves,’’ Roberson said. “We believe in everything coach [Tad] Boyle tells us. We execute our game plan. We try to do our best. Defense and rebounding, that’s our motto. Every time we do that, we win games.’’
Boyle had the Buffs on the doorstep of the NCAA tournament last year in the final year of the Big 12. It was Boyle’s first season with Colorado. And then the team lost its two best players in Alec Burks and Cory Higgins.
Now, five games into this postseason, Boyle’s record is a combined 10-2 in playoff basketball at CU after a 3-1 NIT record a year ago.
“I don’t see why it can’t continue,’’ Boyle said. “It’s going to get harder as we go, we know that. But I believe in this team. They believe in themselves, and as long as you do that this time of year, you’ve got a shot.’’