Going into Wednesday's night's game, the Colorado Buffaloes knew how crucial this match up was in their argument for an NCAA tournament bid. After a tough 21-point loss to Arizona State earlier in the season, the Buffs avenged themselves in a thriller of 14 lead changes, 61-52.
"That was a great win for our team," head coach Tad Boyle said. "It came at a very instrumental time in the season against a very quality Arizona State team...Our guys really stepped up, and our crowd was fantastic for 9:00 tipoff."
Junior guard Askia Booker saw this victory as crucial to the team's identity as contenders in the Pac-12 as well as in the eyes of the Sun Devils.
"It was very important (to defeat ASU)," Booker said. "I don't want to give any excuses about why we didn't play well down there (in Tempe), but we had just lost Spencer and we were trying to find our mojo...Now I think we're back on our feet, and we gave them a great game here. Now they can respect us."
With this win, the Buffs advanced to a 20-7 overall and 9-5 in the Pac-12. In doing so, they hit a big milestone that has only been achieved eight times in school history: the team reached the 20-win mark, a feat that Boyle has achieved in all four seasons that he's been with Colorado.
In a game highlighted with excellent defense and poor offensive performances from both teams, three Buffs shined in the scoring category. Booker paced the team with 18 points, 16 of which came in the second half, and six rebounds.
Scott not only excelled on offense but on defense as well. Boyle assigned him the task of guarding Arizona State big man Jordan Bachynski, who Scott held to four points and three rebounds.
Throughout the game, both teams struggled to get the ball in the basket. The Buffs ended the game 20-54 from the field (37.0%), 1-9 from the three-point range (11.1%), and 20-26 from the charity stripe (76.9%).
The Sun Devils didn't fare much better, going 17-54 from the field (31.5%), 7-25 from the three (28.0%), and 11-15 from the free throw line (73.3%).
The entire first half was a game of back and forth between the two teams. In the first 20 minutes of play, the game saw 12 lead changes and four tied scores. Questionable officiating on both ends in the first half may have played a role in the close score.
For the majority of the half, both teams excelled on defense with neither team scoring at all for the first 2:40 of the game. At that point, freshman Dustin Thomas went to the line and sank a couple free throws for the first points of the night.
"We knew we had to guard ball springs all night and I think we did a pretty good job on that," sophomore guard Xavier Talton said. "I think that helped us out a lot (on defense)."
The Sun Devils responded right away with a three-point shot to get their first lead of game, and that started a seemingly endless cycle of lead changes and tie scores. By the time the buzzer sounded, the Buffs held a slight-edge with a 27-26 lead.
Aside from their exceptional defense, two Buffs led the way on offense in the first. Josh Scott paced the Buffaloes with eight points and six rebounds, followed by Dustin Thomas who was playing some of the best college ball of his young career. He finished the first with six points, three rebounds, and a block.
Thomas' game caught the attention of his coach, who noted, "I thought Dustin Thomas was terrific in the first half."
Throughout the first, both teams struggled on offense. The Buffs shot 10-26 from the field (38.5%), 1-5 from downtown (20.0%), and 6-10 from the free throw line (60.0%). The Sun Devils also shot poorly, going 9-28 from the field (32.1%), 3-13 from behind the arc (23.1%), and 5-7 from the foul line (71.4%).
At the start of the second half, the Buffs' defense completely fell apart. They allowed the Sun Devils to go on a 6-0 run and go up 32-27, but the Buffs weren't ready to give it up that easily. The responded with a 13-3 run over the course of five minutes to gain a 40-35 lead with ten minutes to go.
That was the last lead change of the game. Although the Sun Devils kept right up with the Buffaloes, they were never able to overcome them. The Buffs gained their biggest lead of the game with seven minutes remaining when they went up by nine, 45-36.
By the time the final buzzer sounded, the Buffs matched their biggest lead with a nine-point win, 61-52.
"It was huge," Boyle said. "I mean every game is huge, this one especially...This team is believing in each other right now. When Spencer (Dinwiddie) and (Tre'Shaun Fletcher) went down, there was some worry and some non-belief, but our guys have gotten it back. I'm awful proud of them."
While this game certainly helped the Buffaloes with their NCAA tournament bid, their game on Saturday, Feb. 22 will be even more crucial to convince the league that they deserve to go to the Big Dance.
The Buffaloes are set to host College GameDay this Saturday as they host the No. 4 Arizona Wildcats for another pivotal matchup. Tipoff is at 7:00 p.m., but the GameDay festivities will kick off at 8:00 a.m. and continue until the start of the game.
"We got a national TV audience that'll tune in and check out what Boulder, Colorado's all about," Boyle said. "Now it's time to move on to the next game; I want to enjoy this one a little bit, but it's not much time to enjoy things this time of year. You just got to put it in the bank and move on."