What went right
The Buffs turned the game around with a 13-1 run in the second half, getting good shots on offense and stepping up defensively in that stretch.
What went wrong
Nine first-half turnovers, and several more in the early part of the second half, contributed to USC hanging around all afternoon.
Star of the game
Askia Booker. The junior put the team on his back in the second half. He finished with 21 points and seven rebounds and was the key to CU's game-changing rally.
The Buffs will face California on Thursday in the quarterfinals.
LAS VEGAS —— Askia Booker looked up at the scoreboard and then remembered the key word that assistant coach Rodney Billups stressed.
Booker's composure down the stretch was critical for the Colorado men's basketball team on Wednesday, as it knocked off Southern Cal 59-56 in the first round of the Pac-12 Tournament at the MGM Grand Garden Arena.
"When you want to win, you can do a lot of stuff," Booker said. "I didn't want to go home tonight."
The junior scored 21 points, many of those in an important second-half stretch, to help the fifth-seeded Buffs (22-10) avoid becoming the first No. 5 to lose to a No. 12 in the three-year history of this event. Last-place Southern Cal ends its season at 11-21.
CU will face No. 4 California (19-12) in Thursday's quarterfinals at 3:30 p.m. MDT.
"Sometimes you have to win ugly and we won ugly tonight, there's no doubt about it," CU head coach Tad Boyle said. "When you don't play your best and you're off your game with multiple guys and on multiple levels and you figure out a way to win, that's a testament to your mental toughness."
Nobody was tougher than Booker, who put the team on his back during the second half.
USC went on an 8-1 run to take its biggest lead of the game, 45-40, with 10 minutes, 43 seconds to go.
Booker then sparked CU's rally. He hit a pair of free throws and then converted a three-point play to pull the Buffs within 47-45.
USC's Pe'Shon Howard responded with a layup to put the Trojans head 49-45 with 8:53 to go, but then Booker fueled CU's game-changing run.
"I just told myself it's either now or never," Booker said. "All the work I put in during the offseason, I just kind of fell back on that and relied on that."
Booker hit a jumper and then assisted on a Xavier Johnson dunk to start the 13-1 surge that turned USC's four-point lead into CU's biggest lead of the game, 58-50, with 3:10 to play.
Booker also got sophomore Josh Scott involved, as Scott had six of his 13 points in that run. Scott struggled all afternoon, making just four of 14 shots and showing his frustration, but was huge in those moments.
"My frustration stems from things I shouldn't and can't talk about," Scott said with a smile. "But, my thing was, I was really happy and thankful that my teammates kept feeding me and had faith in me."
USC did score four in a row to cut the CU lead to 58-54, but then Wesley Gordon had a key steal that led to a Scott free throw, and Booker made a great save near the CU basket that kept possession in the Buffs' hands in the closing seconds.
"Tonight, Askia Booker played with, and in timeouts had as much composure and acted as much like a leader as he has all year along," Boyle said. "I thought that was critical for us. Askia made some big-time plays, but he played with great composure. We're going to need him to do that."
Despite that, USC did have a chance until the end. Byron Wesley's last-second 3-pointer clanked off the rim, sending CU to the second round. Wesley had 23 points.
It was yet another first-round struggle for the Buffs, but they improved to 4-0 in conference tournament openers under Boyle. It was the third time in those four games that the outcome was decided by six points or less.
Boyle credited USC, which knew it was done for the season with a loss.
"Tournament basketball, everybody has a new life," Boyle said. "Everybody has a fresh start on things and you throw the records out the window because you're playing for your life. There's a lot of good teams in college basketball. To win games in March is the most difficult thing to do. USC had four seniors playing their last game. Those kids played hard. They played with a lot of heart and a lot of energy."
So did Boyle's bunch, and now they move on in their quest for the Pac-12 Tournament title.