LOS ANGELES – At 1:30 a.m. Saturday, Colorado coach Tad Boyle still had one final task to complete before he went to sleep.
Boyle took out his phone and texted Alec Burks, Cory Higgins and four other members of last season's Colorado team who are no longer with the program to tell them he was dedicating Saturday's Pac-12 title game to them. Those six were among the players who gathered in Boyle's living room on "Selection Sunday" last March and watched in shocked silence as a 21-win Colorado team projected to make the field of 68 instead got left out.
The gathering in Boyle's living room Sunday should be far more stress-free, thanks to the sixth-seeded Buffaloes' stunning Pac-12 tournament performance. They completed a run of four victories in four days Saturday by defeating fourth-seeded Arizona 53-51 at the Staples Center in a rare Pac-12 title game in which both teams had to win to have any NCAA tournament hope.
"Other than leaving Northern Colorado and telling my team I was coming to CU, it was the hardest day in my life as a college basketball coach because I knew what that team deserved," Boyle said of last season's Selection Sunday. "Inspiration can come in a lot of different forms, and for me as a coach, those guys that will never have that opportunity again is what inspired me."
When Arizona guard Kyle Fogg's heavily contested 3-pointer at the buzzer fell well short, seemingly everyone on Colorado's bench sprinted onto the court. It was a moment to be cherished for a program that hasn't often reached these heights. It's the Buffaloes' first NCAA tournament berth since 2003 and it came after being projected to finish 11th in their inaugural Pac-12 season.
"To say I'm proud of these guys is probably the biggest understatement I've ever made," Boyle said. "If you believe in destiny, you believe in the Colorado Buffaloes because it was meant to be for us."
Colorado can sleep peacefully Saturday night knowing it's guaranteed to hear its name called during Sunday's selection show. But the Buffaloes are the only Pac-12 team that has that luxury. There's a chance the league could receive only one NCAA tournament bid for the first time since 1978; league teams collectively beat just three RPI top-50 opponents in non-conference play and its top teams faded in the past two weeks.
California, which finished tied for second in the regular-season behind Washington, may have the best chance for an at-large bid as a result of its top-40 RPI and its 3-0 head-to-head record against Washington and Oregon (the other team that tied for second). But the Bears beat nobody noteworthy in non-league play and staggered to the finish with three losses in four games. The only other Pac-12 team with a case is Washington, which has an RPI in the low 70s and a dearth of quality wins.
When the top-seeded Huskies lost in overtime to ninth-seeded Oregon State on Thursday in the Pac-12 quarterfinals, coach Lorenzo Romar acknowledged his team was now at the "mercy" of the selection committee.
"I know we haven't won as many games as we should have in non-conference as a league, but I would think the Pac-12 champion would be able to find a place in the NCAA tournament," Romar said. "We certainly did not help ourselves today, but I would think we'd be able to find ourselves in there."
It's a testament to the coaching job Boyle has done that Colorado has no such uncertainty. Despite losing four starters from last season's NIT semifinalists, the Buffs regrouped behind the leadership of seniors Carlon Brown and Austin Dufault, the defense and rebounding of forward Andre Roberson and the timely scoring of freshman guards Spencer Dinwiddie and Askia Booker. Colorado took advantage of the weakened Pac-12 to win 11 conference games, though the Buffs' 3-6 road record in conference play inspired doubts about whether they could make a deep conference tourney run.
To make Staples Center feel more like home, Colorado brought a 50-person student section replete with "#RollTad" signs, super hero costumes and numerous creative chants. Before tip-off of each of the Buffs' four games, the students chanted "We don't need no altitude" in hopes that it might inspire their team.
Colorado built a 50-38 lead with nine minutes to play in Saturday's title game before the combination of fatigue and the pressure of the moment began to take its toll. Three Buffaloes missed the rim entirely on open 3-pointers, guard Nate Tomlinson threw the ball away in the final minute and Dufault clanked a pair of free throws with 14.4 seconds to go, giving Arizona one last chance to tie or win at the buzzer.
"The last 10 minutes, we had a lot of fight in us," Arizona coach Sean Miller said. "We had a shot to win the game. It wasn't a good one, but it's amazing we had that when you consider the hole we were in."
Once Dufault had donned his Pac-12 Champions cap and T-shirt and celebrated at midcourt, his thoughts drifted back to the heartbreak of last Selection Sunday and to a text he got from former teammate Trent Beckley on Saturday morning. It read, "Play hard and make history."
"To get a text from a guy like that who worked so hard for five years was inspiring," Dufault said. "Being able to win it for him and for my other teammates last year is extremely special."
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