SALT LAKE CITY — When the Colorado men’s basketball team hit the floor at Utah on Saturday night, the Buffaloes’ fate for next week’s Pac-12 Conference tournament already was set.
Win or lose, and the Buffaloes were locked into the fourth seed, and the accompanying first-round bye, thanks to Oregon’s loss at Washington State earlier in the day.
Yet backing into that first-round bye with a loss would mean officially sharing the fourth-place spot with the Washington schools in the final Pac-12 standings. And apparently CU wanted that spot all to themselves.
The Buffs played more like a team ready for a conference tournament run in Las Vegas than one content in its slot, using a torrid shooting performance to bury the Utes quickly in an 84-71 victory in the regular season finale at the Huntsman Center.
Not only did the win allow a young, injury-riddled team to claim sole possession of fourth in the conference, but the Buffs also secured the 13th 20-win season in program history, and the ninth in 12 seasons under head coach Tad Boyle.
“It says a lot about our maturity and our professionalism. They understood it was about more than just (the bye),” Boyle said. “We didn’t want to back into it. We wanted to go out and earn that fourth seed. We did.”
The Buffs connected on seven of their first nine 3-point attempts, with Evan Battey and Jabari Walker knocking down five 3s in a 14-2 CU run that gave the Buffs a 10-point lead before the first media timeout.
CU built an 18-point first half lead that Utah eventually trimmed to 11, but the Buffs answered with a 10-0 run on the way to a 50-29 lead at halftime. CU pushed its lead to 29 points in the second half before a late Utes rally made the final score more aesthetically pleasing for the home fans of the Pac-12’s 11th-place team.
“We had something to play for. It’s more than the four seed,” Battey said. “It says a lot about our group and our fight, and our ability to get better every day.”
A week after his emotional Senior Day at the CU Events Center, Battey turned in a monster game, setting career-highs in 3-pointers (six) and points (27) in the highest-scoring effort by a CU player this season. Walker extended his Pac-12-leading total of double-doubles to 16, finishing with 22 points, 12 rebounds, and a career-high five assists. Battey and Walker combined to go 9-for-15 on 3-pointers.
CU matched a season-high with 14 3-pointers, finishing 14-for-23, and the Buffs outrebounded the Utes 36-30.
Picked sixth in the Pac-12 preseason media poll, the Buffs will enter the conference tournament as one of the hottest teams in the league with wins in seven of the past eight games.
“We’re thinking bigger than just the (Pac-12) tournament,” Walker said. “We’re thinking March Madness. That’s our ultimate goal. We just want to put ourselves in the best possible situation. They thought after losing all those pieces we’d drop to the bottom of the league. I was upset when I heard about (where CU was picked). I thought it was disrespectful, knowing the guys we had and what they’re capable of.
“I just told the guys it’s like that every year. They’re going to doubt us. Throughout the season we’ve just been working to be to where we know we can be. And we’re still not done.”
What went right: CU went 14-for-23 on 3-pointers and finished with an overall field goal percentage of .508, its seventh-best mark of the season.
What went wrong: Very little. But the Buffs probably let their foot off the gas a bit after building a 29-point lead in the second half, which will give head coach Tad Boyle plenty of talking points in the team’s video session.
Star of the game: Evan Battey. Although Jabari Walker flirted with triple-double territory, it was Battey’s sharpshooting skills early that energized the Buffs during an opening salvo. Battey went 10-for-17 overall and 6-for-9 on 3-pointers for a career-high 27 points. Battey also recorded six rebounds, two assists and a steal.
What’s next: With a first-round bye in hand, the Buffs will open the Pac-12 Conference tournament on Thursday in Las Vegas against either fifth-seeded Oregon or 12th-seeded Oregon State.
Colorado 84, Utah 71
COLORADO (20-10, 12-8)
Battey 10-17 1-2 27, Walker 7-14 5-6 22, da Silva 2-2 0-0 5, Clifford 5-10 0-0 11, Hammond 1-4 0-0 3, O’Brien 1-3 1-2 3, Barthelemy 3-5 0-0 8, Simpson 1-4 3-5 5, Loughlin 0-0 0-0 0. Totals 30-59 10-15 84.
UTAH (11-19, 4-16)
Battin 1-3 1-1 3, Carlson 6-14 4-7 18, Anthony 1-3 0-0 2, Gach 0-2 0-0 0, Jenkins 6-10 3-6 18, Stefanovic 4-6 2-2 12, Worster 1-3 1-2 3, Madsen 2-7 0-0 5, Brenchley 2-3 4-4 8, Thioune 1-2 0-0 2, Ballstaedt 0-1 0-0 0, Creer 0-0 0-0 0. Totals 24-54 15-22 71.
Halftime — Colorado 50-29. 3-point field goals — Colorado 14-23 (Battey 6-9, Walker 3-6, Barthelemy 2-2, Clifford 1-1, da Silva 1-1, Hammond 1-2, Simpson 0-2), Utah 8-23 (Jenkins 3-6, Carlson 2-3, Stefanovic 2-4, Madsen 1-6, Ballstaedt 0-1, Gach 0-1, Battin 0-2). Fouled out — da Silva. Rebounds — Colorado 36 (Walker 12), Utah 30 (Jenkins 6). Assists — Colorado 18 (Walker 5), Utah 10 (Battin, Anthony, Gach 2). Total fouls — Colorado 18, Utah 16. A — 7,724.