Elevated Stakes

by Cub Buenning / @cubbuenning

Never has the state of Colorado been mistaken for a blue-blood in the world of college basketball. When it comes time to fill out your bracket in March, rarely do teams from the Centennial State get chosen to advance. That is, if there are any present at all.

Despite all five of the Division-I programs being comfortably within the state lines of one of the most sports-crazed communities, not even the multitude of local alums display even a whisper of interest for much of the winter. Granted, it is tough to compete when the Broncos are making their annual flirtation with the Super Bowl and the Nuggets can boast the third longest streak of post-season appearances.

And let’s be honest, other than us true college hoops junkies, there has not been much competitive play around this area to warrant more than just the casual glance.

Last year, the 120th meeting between the University of Colorado and Colorado State University was contested in Fort Collins at Moby (Gym) Arena. Tim Miles, now the head guy at Nebraska, led the Rams to a thrilling 65-64 victory.

Minnesota transfer Colton Iverson has been a revelation for first-year Rams head coach, Larry Eustachy, and not just for the fact that his 6-10 foot stature “elevated” a very vertically challenged team that last year relied on a 6-5 Pearce Hornung to shoulder the bulk of the interior dirty work. Hornung is back and active as ever, already hauling in a robust 12 rebounds a contest. The frontcourt pair, combined with an experienced group of guards has sparked the team to a 6-0 start with a quality road win over Washington from the Pac-12.

The Buffs, on the other hand, came into the game on the heels of their first setback of the season, dropping a closely contested road game this past weekend up the street in Laramie to the Wyoming Cowboys. While not a back-breaking loss (Wyoming itself is off to an impressive undefeated start), CU does already own three quality neutral-site victories taking home the Charleston Classic with wins over Dayton, Murray State and Baylor. Nationally, Tad Boyle’s team is set for a post-season nod with that impressive early season resume, but locally, the loss on Saturday provides added importance with the Rams making the 47-mile trip south.

Put simply, this was a big game, perhaps, the most relevant, important and competitive meeting between in-state teams, maybe ever.

Speaking of which, if it had been a few years since your last trip to the cozy, on-campus digs that is the Coors Event Center, you might not have recognized the place, having seen student support and involvement increase exponentially. What was once a non-factor has become a major home-court advantage. Visiting fan bases used to dominate the acoustics, now the lunacy found in most college gymnasiums has found its way to Boulder in the form of the CUnit, the student section that dominates half of the building. On this evening, more people saw a basketball game then ever before with a record 11,705 in attendance.

Wednesday’s game lived up to the hype. It lived up to the excitement. It legitimately felt like an elite college basketball environment.

What it did not do was deliver a competitive game that is until the Rams made a second half push. The game kicked off with a loud and energetic 9-0 Colorado run and the home team sprung out. Not surprising, it was an oppressive, energetic Buff defense that led to easy baskets. The Buffs scored in transition, they hit pull-up jumpers, they pushed the pace.

At the heart of the Colorado attack was converted sophomore point guard, Spencer Dinwiddie. A long 6-6 off-guard during his first campaign in Boulder, Dinwiddie has emerged as a legitimate professional prospect as a floor general. The Woodland Hills, (CA) native pushed the pace, nailed shots in transition on his way to a 15-point first-half on just six shots. As a team, it was the resulting shooting percentages, which made the biggest difference in the game’s first 20 minutes. CU’s defense forced the visitors into a 30 percent shooting half, while hitting 59 percent of their own. They led by as many as 25 and ultimately 20 at the intermission.

For the Rams, Iverson overcame a shaky first half where he not only shot poorly, but picked up a frustration technical foul. Iverson displayed an impressive array of post moves in the second half and was instrumental in keeping the game in range, but it was not to be as the Buffs clamped down on defense and overcame some horrid late game free-throw shooting to hold on for a 70-61 victory. Dinwiddie led with 29 and Andre Roberson chipped in with 15 points and 14 rebounds.

To their credit, the Rams could have easily packed it in after the abysmal first-half but behind senior guard Dorien Green (18 points) and Iverson (19 and 14 rebounds) they were able to get as close as three late in the second half.

But, defense was again the difference as three straight stops led to five points and the home crowd could ease their stress and focus on making noise and basking in victory.

And for one night in the historically college hoops abyss that is Colorado, it was like Tobacco Road, Rupp Arena and Allen Fieldhouse all wrapped up in one.