BOULDER - After being passed over four days earlier by the NCAA, the Colorado Buffaloes might have arrived at the Coors Events Center on Wednesday night wanting to express themselves. An enterprising fan found the right words (the search didn't take long) and put them in bold gold lettering on a black T-shirt he was peddling outside the arena: "SCREW THE SELECTION COMMITTEE."
That might not be possible, but the Buffs took the first step in proving that group made a shameful error. It wasn't letter-perfect basketball, but CU blistered Texas Southern 88-74 in its first-round NIT game, advancing to the second round on Friday at the Events Center to play future Pac-12 opponent California (7:30 p.m., ESPNU).
Win that one, plus a following game at home next week, and CU is headed to Madison Square Garden for the NIT semifinals. It might not be the Big Dance, but the Big Apple for hoops in late March is a nice destination.
"We'll take that, I guess. It wasn't the prettiest game. I thought mentally, we were a little out of it . . . we had a little funk to us, if you will. We didn't have that mojo we need to have, that we had in Kansas City (at the Big 12 tournament). A lot of that is expected; I can't fault our guys too much for it, but we just have to get back to who we are and how we were playing," said Coach Tad Boyle, whose first CU team tied a school record with its 22nd win (13 losses).
The Buffs will have to reclaim their identity quickly, having only one day to prepare for the Golden Bears, a 77-74 winner over Mississippi. Boyle called Cal "a heck of a challenge for us" and said he expected "a Big 12 game" from the Golden Bears (18-14). He hoped CU students might delay beginning spring break - it starts Friday - "by six or seven hours . . . just stay for one more game and give us that lift, because we need it. Our students and fans have been great all year."
Wednesday night's game drew 6,299, a loud and appreciative crowd that saw double-figure performances from senior Cory Higgins, sophomore Alec Burks and freshman Andre Roberson. Burks, once again serenaded by chants of "One More Year'' from the student section, led all scorers with 27 points, while Higgins added 25 and Roberson 15 and a game-best eight rebounds.
"Cory kind of willed us tonight," Boyle said. "I thought (he) was dialed in from the get-go . . . he was really dialed in all night."
As the disappointment of Sunday's snub wore off, Higgins said he and his teammates "definitely wanted to come out and play hard, keep some of the momentum we had at the end of the season. I don't know if it was a statement game, but I knew we were going to be locked in and try to make sure we win and get back to playing a good basketball game."
The Buffs were never in real trouble in the first half, but getting it going - really going - required a little time. With Texas Southern, the Southwestern Athletic Conference runner-up, hitting only one of its first seven field goal attempts, CU had no trouble taking an 8-2 lead. And the Buffs maintained their advantage throughout the first 20 minutes.
The Tigers' only genuine threat to comeback occurred when guard Harrison Smith hit a three-pointer with 5:39 before the break to cut the Buffs' lead to 26-23. That might have pushed the right button for CU and the eject button for TSU (19-13).
From that point until halftime, the Buffs were at their best on a night when their up-tempo offense was spotty. Burks was at the forefront of a 14-2 run that opened a 40-25 CU lead. After a Nate Tomlinson steal, Burks found Higgins on the left wing for a layup, then spied Andre Roberson alone underneath for a dunk. On the next trip down, Burks sliced under the basket from the left side, came up on the right and put the ball high on the backboard.
It nestled in the net and gave the Buffs their biggest advantage of the half, 40-25 - and CU maintained that 15-point lead (44-29) at the break.
Boyle said his team "spurted on offense," crediting TSU for "junking it up defensively" and causing the Buffs' inconsistencies. "We never got into a flow."
CU's decisive run just before halftime, said Burks, didn't result from anyone's words during a timeout: "I don't remember anything being said . . . we wanted to go to half with a double-digit lead, maybe that's what sparked it."
Higgins finished the half with 16 points, Burks 12 and Roberson 9. The Tigers were held to 33.3 percent from the field (11-of-33) in the first half and 39.7 percent for the game (27-of-68). The Buffs shot 57.7 percent (15-of-26) in the first 20 minutes and 61.2 percent (30-of-49) for the full 40.
TSU seemed content to play an outside game early and went to the free throw line only three times in the opening half. CU, meanwhile, had taking it to the rim as its goal on almost every trip across half-court, drawing a dozen fouls and hitting 13-of-19 free throws (24-of-31 for the game).
CU opened the second half with a set play that featured Burks cutting in from the left wing and Tomlinson lobbing a pass that Burks caught and stuffed in one motion. The Buffs were up by the largest margin of the night to that point, 46-29.
The Tigers reeled off six consecutive points to close to within 11 (46-35) with 18:06 to play. But once again, Burks and the Buffs hit the gas. They steadily rebuilt their lead to 18 (55-37) on a Levi Knutson trey, then to 20 (65-45) on another Knutson three-pointer with 11:16 remaining.
From there, CU added to a potential NIT highlight reel, getting a lengthy trey by Burks, dunks by Roberson and Shannon Sharpe, a soft lay-in by Burks on a fast break, Higgins pulling up and hitting, driving and finishing, Burks with an acrobatic up-and-under layup . . . the list went on.
Texas Southern had stumbled into a bad place. When CU surged ahead 78-54 on a Higgins layup with 5:44 to play, the only issues in doubt were the final margin and how many fans would make it back in two nights.