Clutch performer: KJ Simpson looks to keep CU Buffs rolling against Florida

Mar. 21—INDIANAPOLIS — KJ Simpson could put up bricks up all night and fire wild passes all over the court, and his teammates know he will be there for them in the end.

Not that those things have occurred often, or really at all, during a superb season that should've garnered All-American recognition. The point is that regardless of what happens through the first 35 minutes of any given basketball game, Simpson more likely than not will don his Superman cape when it matters most to save the Buffaloes.

By no means was Wednesday's 60-53 victory against Boise State in the NCAA Tournament First Four a one-man show. Tristan da Silva knocked down key shots, center Eddie Lampkin Jr. battled relentlessly in the paint, and the Buffs played excellent team defense the entire night.

And yet, when CU needed to make plays in the waning minutes, it was Simpson who once again provided the spark. The Buffs hope Simpson's late heroics won't be necessary — in a good way, of course — when their NCAA Tournament journey continues on Friday with the program's first-ever matchup against Florida, in a first-round game in Indianapolis.

"It's just having short-term memory," Simpson said. "You're going to have off nights. As much as you don't want to, sometimes it's just not going to fall for you. It was just one of those nights, unfortunately. But I knew coming down the stretch that my team needed me to step up as a leader and veteran of this team. I'm just mentally prepared for that. That's just having short-term memory, understanding that I've got to do other things than just scoring."

The Buffs trailed 47-43, and Simpson was only 4-for-15 shooting, when he collected an offensive rebound with less than 6 minutes remaining and converted the follow-up. He was 2-for-3 down the stretch and scored 10 of his 19 points in the final 5 minutes, 18 seconds. He also went 6-for-6 at the free throw line in the final 3:42 and hit da Silva for a 3-pointer that started CU's game-clinching 11-0 run.

It certainly wasn't the first time Simpson has dominated at crunch time. Last season, a flurry of Simpson 3-pointers nearly stole a road win for the Buffs at California. In a key home win against Washington State this season, he scored 13 of his career-high 34 points over the final 9:36, also delivering an assist to Lampkin for a 3-point play. And in the most important win of the season — a double-overtime, comeback win at USC on Feb. 17 — Simpson scored 19 of his 30 points over the final 7:52 of regulation plus the overtime sessions, also hitting Luke O'Brien with a nifty pass for the game-tying dunk in the waning seconds of regulation.

In a tournament setting, having a premier scorer with ice in his veins at the most heated moments is an incredibly valuable asset.

"KJ's really special in that regard," CU head coach Tad Boyle said. "He's a supreme competitor. He plays extremely hard. He competes on both sides of the ball. KJ was uncharacteristically inefficient offensively against Boise State. He's been a tremendously efficient point guard all year long, from an assist-to-turnover ratio, to a shooting percentage from both three and two.

"He believes in himself. He knows that I believe in him. He knows that his teammates believe in him. He's got a great family that believes in him. He's got a great support system and he's an ultimate competitor. So when you put all those things together, you've got a guy who down the stretch isn't afraid to make plays, even if he struggled the first 35 minutes of a game."

Florida went 11-7 in SEC play, finishing fifth. The Gators won three games in three days at the conference tournament before losing against Auburn in the title game. However, the Gators' biggest loss in that game might have been the broken leg suffered by 7-foot-1 sophomore Micah Handlogten, who ranked second on the team in rebounding at 6.9 per game and added 5.3 points per game. Handlogten began the week ranked fifth in the nation in offensive rebounding percentage at 17.8%

Like the Buffs, the Gators are in the tournament for the first time since the all-Indianapolis tourney of 2021.

"They understand that we have a game under our belt, so they're not going to come out sluggish," CU's J'Vonne Hadley said. "It would be cool if they did, but we're not expecting that. They're a good team, a good-coached team. It's going to be another physical battle, just like Boise State was, and we understand that. We just have to go out and execute."

(10) CU Buffs men's basketball vs. (7) Florida Gators

TIPOFF: Friday, 2:30 p.m. MT, Gainbridge Fieldhouse, Indianapolis.

TV/RADIO: TBS/KOA 850 AM and 94.1 FM.

RECORDS: Colorado 25-10; Florida 24-11.

COACHES: Colorado — Tad Boyle, 14th season (297-182, 353-248 overall). Florida — Todd Golden, 2nd season (40-28, 97-64 overall).

KEY PLAYERS: Colorado — G KJ Simpson, 6-2, Jr. (19.6 ppg, 5.9 rpg, 4.8 apg, .474 FG%, .446 3%); F Tristan da Silva, 6-9, Sr. (15.9 ppg, 5.1 rpg, 2.3 apg, .487 FG%, .382 3%); G J'Vonne Hadley, 6-6, Sr. (11.6 ppg, 6.0 rpg, .542 FG%, .419 3%); C Eddie Lampkin Jr., 6-11, Sr. (10.3 ppg, 7.1 rpg, .576 FG%); G/F Luke O'Brien, 6-8, Sr. (6.5 ppg, 3.8 rpg, .385 3%); G Cody Williams, 6-8, Fr. (12.0 ppg, 3.2 rpg, .552 FG%, .410 3%). Florida — G Walter Clayton Jr., 6-2, Jr. (17.1 ppg, 3.6 rpg, 2.6 apg, .363 3%); G Zyon Pullin, 6-4, Gr. (15.6 ppg, 4.0 rpg, 4.9 apg, .447 3%); F Tyrese Samuel, 6-10, Gr. (14.0 ppg, 7.5 rpg, .563 FG%); G Will Richard, 6-4, Jr. (11.3 ppg, 4.0 rpg, .340 3%); G Riley Kugel, 6-5, So. (9.1ppg, 3.5 rpg); F/C Alex Condon, 6-11, Fr. (7.7 ppg, 6.3 rpg, .465 FG%).

NOTES: The winner will play either second-seeded Marquette or No. 15 seed Western Kentucky in the second round on Sunday. ... The Buffs are 12-17 all-time in their 16 NCAA Tournament appearances. ... Gainbridge Fieldhouse was one of the venues for the all-Indianapolis tournament of the 2021 COVID-19 season but the Buffs didn't play there, instead defeating Georgetown at Butler's Hinkle Fieldhouse before losing to Florida State at Indiana Farmers Coliseum at the state fairgrounds. ... In Wednesday's win against Boise State, Simpson set the program record for minutes played in a season at 1,224. The previous mark was held by Cory Higgins, who played 1,222 minutes in 2010-11. ... Lampkin has shot at least 50% in 27 of 35 games this season and has gone 37-for-56 (.661) in the past seven games. ... In the past four games since the start of the Pac-12 tournament, Hadley, a plus-55% shooter for much of the season, has gone 6-for-22 with an 0-for-7 mark on 3-pointers.