What went right: The Buffs built a big lead early and then played well down the stretch to hang on and beat a good team.
What went wrong: The Buffs had a scoring drought of 5:38 in the second half that let Cal back into the game. Cal went on a 7-0 run during that drought to cut the CU lead to 49-48.
Star of the game: Xavier Talton. Askia Booker was great again, but Talton scored 13 points — one shy of his career high — and had just one turnover in 35 minutes.
What's next?: The Buffs will face No. 4 Arizona on Friday in the Pac-12 Tournament semifinals.
LAS VEGAS — — When the Colorado men's basketball team walked out of the Huntsman Center in Salt Lake City on March 1, it was a shell of the team head coach Tad Boyle wants the Buffs to be.
Two weeks later, the Buffaloes are playing Boyle's style, and they're looking pretty darn good doing it.
On Thursday, Askia Booker scored 17 points and the CU defense was stellar for the fourth game in a row as the Buffs knocked off California, 59-56, in the quarterfinals of the Pac-12 Tournament at the MGM Grand Garden Arena.
"After that loss (to Utah), we just rededicated to winning, dedicated to our principles of defense and rebounding," sophomore Xavier Johnson said. "We've been doing that a lot."
Fifth-seeded CU (23-10) will face No. 4-ranked and top-seeded Arizona (29-3) in the semifinals Friday at 7 p.m. MDT. Arizona routed Utah, 71-39, in an earlier quarterfinal on Thursday.
With the win, the Buffs improved to 9-2 in conference tournament games under Boyle. CU has reached the conference semifinals for the third time in four years with Boyle. They won the Pac-12 Tournament title in 2012.
The Buffaloes are two wins from winning the tournament again because their defense has been stingy here in Las Vegas. They defeated Southern Cal 59-56 on Wednesday in the first round.
On Thursday, the Buffs held Cal (19-13) to 41.5 percent shooting, out-rebounded the Bears 38-29 and got critical stops in key moments.
"I think it's a testament to what our guys have really bought into," Boyle said. "Since that game (at Utah), we went on the Bay Area trip and really played with an intensity on defense. We really played well defensively on that trip. We've played well defensively since we've been here. It's a mentality."
In the loss to Utah, the Buffs' defense collapsed in the second half for the second consecutive game.
Since then, they are 3-1 with the only loss coming by a single point in overtime at Cal last Saturday. They have held all four opponents below 42 percent shooting and they've out-rebounded all four by at least eight rebounds in the last two weeks.
"The one thing about these guys, they're playing with a sense of purpose and competitiveness about them as a group that we haven't seen in a while," Boyle said. "It's come and it's gone throughout the year, but these guys are focused. They're confident."
Sophomore Josh Scott, who had 11 points and six rebounds against Cal, said there's been a definite difference in the team over the last four games.
"It comes from this being the third season," Scott said, referring to the non-conference being the first season, the conference schedule being the second and the postseason being the third. "We just focus on one team at a time and it's win or go home. I think that's where that comes from.
"No one wants to go home and we are really resilient to that fact right now."
From the start Thursday, the Buffs looked like a determined team.
Defensively, the Buffs locked down the Bears early, and offensively, they were as crisp as they've been in a while. A 3-pointer from Johnson gave CU its biggest lead of the game, 29-16, with 3 minutes, 46 seconds to go in the first half.
Cal rallied, though, and made it a game late. Justin Cobbs had a game-high 21 points, including a dunk that capped an 11-2 run that brought the Bears within 49-48 with 6:38 to play.
CU looked to be on the verge of a collapse at that point, but Xavier Talton, who finished with 13 points, drained a massive 3-pointer with 4:33 to go.
"I think that probably came at one of the big times and my teammates also gave me confidence in making the shot," Talton said.
The Buffs scored just three points in the final 2:45 of the game, but they were all on free throws in the final 12.1 seconds. Then, they held their breath when Cobbs' last-second 3-point attempt was pushed to the left.
"I couldn't be more proud of our team and the way they played today and how they've represented this university and our program," Boyle said. "You could tell from the start that our players really wanted this game and they had that intensity about them that was pretty evident."