LAS VEGAS (AP) – Colorado wanted to beat California badly, not just because of loss to the Bears five days earlier, but because both teams are fighting for NCAA tournament spots.
After pulling out a second-straight tight victory in the Pac-12 tournament, the Buffaloes have the edge on the NCAA bubble.
Askia Booker scored 17 points, Xavier Talton added 13 and Colorado held off California 59-56 in the quarterfinals of the Pac-12 tournament on Thursday.
“You could tell from the start that our players really wanted this game,” Colorado coach Tad Boyle said. “That intensity about them that was pretty evident. And it was to a man. It wasn’t just one guy.”
Colorado (23-10) used that intensity to jump on the listless Bears early, building the lead to as much as 11.
Cal fought its way back in the second half behind its defense, setting up a close finish.
The Buffaloes, who have struggled holding late leads this season, pulled out a tight victory in the opening round and did it again against Cal.
Booker put Colorado up 58-54 by hitting two free throws with 12.1 seconds left, but Justin Cobbs raced down for a layup and Eli Stalzer only hit 1 of 2 free throws to give the Bears a chance to tie.
Cobs got the ball, raced down the floor and got off a 3-pointer, but it came up short, sending the Buffaloes into Friday night’s semifinals against No. 4 and top-seeded Arizona.
“It’s a scary knowing there’s a good player out there who can make shots with the ball in his hands,” said Colorado forward Xavier Johnson said. “It really comes down to us not reaching that point and not letting them have a last shot.”
Cal (19-13) rallied after a listless first half, but had trouble making plays down the stretch. The Bears missed a couple of close-range shots after taking the lead, had trouble gathering a late defensive rebound, and had a couple of critical turnovers and missed free throws down the stretch.
Cobbs finished with 21 points, five assists and four rebounds. Tyrone Wallace added 13 points for Cal, which shot 5 of 22 from 3-point range.
“The second half, we got a little life and had multiple opportunities to go ahead, but just made critical mistakes at critical times,” Cal coach Mike Montgomery said.
After Arizona won the first quarterfinal in a blowout, the Buffaloes and Bears faced off in a matchup of NCAA bubble teams.
Cal lost four of its final six games, but earned the Pac-12’s fourth seed and a bye in the tournament by outlasting Colorado in overtime last Saturday in Berkeley.
Colorado has been inconsistent since leading scorer Spencer Dinwiddie went down with a knee injury in January and closed the regular season with three losses in four games, putting its NCAA hopes in a bind.
The Buffaloes got past their first-round Pac-12 game, but it was much harder than anticipated; Colorado never was able to shake last-place Southern California and had to grind out a 59-56 win to earn a shot at Cal.
The Buffaloes were sharp at both ends early against Cal, building an 11-point lead midway through. Colorado dominated the Bears on the glass – a 21-12 advantage – did a good job getting out to their shooters, holding Cal to 2 of 12 from 3-point range to lead 31-22 at halftime.
“We just had no energy,” Cobbs said.
Cal found it early in the second half, quickly chipping Colorado’s lead down to three in the second half, but the Buffaloes stretched it back out to 10 by hitting 7 of their first 10 shots.
The shots stopped falling for a while and a scoreless drought of 5 minutes allowed Cal to pull within one after Wallace scored on three straight layups.
Colorado pulled it out, enhancing its NCAA tournament chances while leaving the Bears to sweat it out.
– By JOHN MARSHALL, AP Basketball Writer
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