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End of the line: Comeback falls short as CU Buffs eliminated from NCAA tourney by Marquette

Mar. 24—Fast break

Why the Buffs lost: CU was unable to get locked-in defensively, as Marquette shot .679 in the first half and finished at .618. It was the highest shooting percentage by a CU foe this season.

Three stars:

1. Marquette's Tyler Kolek. The Golden Eagles point guard dictated the pace throughout and dissected CU's defense, recording 21 points and 11 assists.

2. CU's KJ Simpson. Scored 13 of his 20 points after halftime and also added seven assists and five rebounds.

3. Marquette's Kam Jones. His four 3-pointers in the first half put the Buffs in an early hole. He finished with 18 points and four rebounds.

Up next: The offseason. CU finishes the season with a program-record 26 wins but will soon turn the page to 2024-25.

INDIANAPOLIS — This can always be said about the 2023-24 Colorado men's basketball team. The Buffaloes never backed down from a fight.

Not when a rash of injuries put small dents in CU's lofty preseason expectations. Not when those injuries helped lead to inconsistent play and a series of bad losses. And certainly not against Marquette, even after a hot start by the Golden Eagles threated to send the Buffs back to Colorado with an old-fashioned butt-kicking.

Alas, for 67 of the 68 teams in the NCAA Tournament, the end invariably arrives with disappointment and heartache. On Sunday, it was CU's turn.

Despite a valiant second-half comeback, CU's Sweet 16 dreams were cruelly dashed, as second-seeded Marquette held off the Buffs down the stretch to eliminate CU with an 81-77 decision in a second-round thriller at Gainbridge Fieldhouse.

The sixth NCAA Tournament appearance in 14 seasons under head coach Tad Boyle ended like the previous five — short of the Sweet 16 while lamenting what could've been. It was the third second-round loss of those six tournament appearances under Boyle, although thanks to CU's assignment in the First Four round, the Buffs won two games within the same NCAA Tournament for the first time in 69 years.

"Give Marquette credit. They played well. We didn't have much of an answer for them all (game)," Boyle said. "When a team shoots 61% against you in a game, almost 62%, and you still got a chance at the end, it means you're doing something right. For this team, what that means to me is they've been competing their tails off the whole year. You don't give up 61% and stay in the game. But we rebounded the ball well, we fought, we battled. We just came up a little bit short.

"I thought we had our chances at the end. Had some good looks. Didn't go in. It's disappointing. But I love this team, I love these guys, I love those guys in that locker room. They've got nothing to hang their heads about. They competed their tails off."

CU trailed by 11 points at halftime but rallied in a hurry behind their two leaders all year, KJ Simpson and Tristan da Silva. That duo combined for eight points in a 10-2 run out of the gate after halftime, and Simpson's third 3-pointer within the first five and a half minutes of the second half gave the Buffs their first lead at 55-54 with 14 minutes, 41 seconds remaining.

It proved to be CU's only lead of the game.

Marquette answered with an 8-2 run to regain the advantage, and the Golden Eagles had an answer each time the Buffs battled back into a tie.

A 3-pointer from Cody Williams — his first since Feb. 15 at UCLA — followed by a driving bucket from da Silva pulled CU into a 64-64 tie with 9:38 to play, but Marquette answered with the next five points to regain the lead. Da Silva's third 3-pointer of the game tied it again at 74-74 with 4:02 remaining, but the Golden Eagles outscored CU 7-3 the rest of the way.

The Buffs had several good looks in the waning moments, including an open 3-point attempt from Williams with CU trailing by one point, but the Buffs couldn't get over the hump.

"We knew we weren't playing our best game. It kind of felt like we were supposed to be down 20 or 25 (at halftime) the way we were playing," said da Silva, who recorded 17 points, five rebounds, two assists and a career-high-tying three steals in his final game at CU.

"We had a feeling that it was in our hands to kind of turn this game around. And we had all the confidence to come out in the second half and battle the way we did."

CU didn't enjoy its best game from long range, finishing 10-for-30 on 3-pointers, but the Buffs shot a solid .470 overall and outrebounded Marquette 30-25. This game was lost at the defensive end, as Marquette's second team All-American point guard Tyler Kolek got into the lane at will, finishing 10-for-14 with 21 points and 11 assists. The Golden Eagles shot .618 overall, with Kam Jones shooting Marquette into the lead with four first-half 3-pointers.

As is always the case on tournament elimination day, it was a bittersweet finale as CU bids farewell to da Silva and fellow senior Luke O'Brien, while Williams likely is off to the NBA draft. That could be the next destination for Simpson as well, who likely will at least test his draft stock this spring.

In the aftermath, however, the Buffs preferred to express their collective pride at a late-season surge of 10 wins in 11 games that ended on Sunday. That run saved CU's season and gave the Buffs the opportunity to reach the Big Dance.

"Credit to Marquette. They were hitting almost everything it seemed like," Simpson said. "We just all had the mentality of not giving up. We've done that throughout the whole year. We've shown that throughout the whole year. Never give up on the effort. We did that. We just came up short."

COLORADO (26-11)

da Silva 7-14 0-0 17, Lampkin 6-9 1-1 13, Hadley 3-6 0-0 7, O'Brien 2-8 3-4 8, Simpson 8-19 0-0 20, Williams 5-10 1-2 12, Dak 0-0 0-0 0. Totals 31-66 5-7 77.

MARQUETTE (27-9)

Ighodaro 5-6 0-0 10, Joplin 5-12 2-2 14, K.Jones 7-13 0-0 18, Kolek 10-14 1-2 21, Mitchell 1-3 1-2 3, Ross 5-6 0-0 12, Gold 1-1 0-2 3. Totals 34-55 4-8 81.

Halftime — Marquette 45-34. 3-point field goals — Colorado 10-30 (Simpson 4-12, da Silva 3-7, Williams 1-2, Hadley 1-3, O'Brien 1-6), Marquette 9-21 (K.Jones 4-10, Ross 2-2, Joplin 2-6, Gold 1-1, Kolek 0-1, Mitchell 0-1). Rebounds — Colorado 27 (Lampkin 7), Marquette 23 (Joplin, Kolek 5). Assists — Colorado 21 (Simpson 7), Marquette 18 (Kolek 11). Total fouls — Colorado 11, Marquette 10.