ALBUQUERQUE, N.M. — Maybe Colorado could get used to this college basketball thing.
Playing in one of the sport's shrines, against one of its best-known programs and in front of a suddenly fervent group of fans, the newcomer Buffaloes looked like an NCAA tournament regular Thursday night – even keeping their March Madness audience riveted to their seats through the final seconds.
Freshman reserve Askia Booker scored 16 points and Andre Roberson had 12 points and 16 rebounds, helping Colorado fight off a furious UNLV comeback for a 68-64 victory at The Pit.
The 11th-seeded Buffs (24-11), who bullied their way into March Madness for the first time in nine years by winning the Pac-12 tournament as a No. 6 seed, suddenly can't seem to do anything wrong. The team that got snubbed by the selection committee last year and used that as fuel for this season has won five straight games with its season essentially on the line.
CU's next test is against No. 3 seed Baylor, a winner over South Dakota State earlier and a former Big 12 rival of the Buffs.
For the first 25 minutes of this game, Tad Boyle's team played with a freedom and looseness that makes the game look easy. Never as easy as early in the second half, when Austin Dufault (14 points) made back-to-back 3-pointers and Carlon Brown (12) followed with another to push CU's lead to 49-29.
CU leading UNLV by 20?
That's the kind of thing that just didn't seem possible – and not just decades back, but as recently as a few weeks ago.
Maybe it was too good to be true.
No. 6 UNLV went on a 26-8 run and cut the lead to two on Justin Hawkins' 3-pointer with 4:20 left. From there, though, UNLV (26-9) missed its next seven shots. Brown made a windmill dunk – reminiscent of those he slammed home late in Pac-12 wins over Arizona and Cal – to help CU regain its bearings, then the Buffs made 4 of 8 free throws in the last minute to hold on for the victory.
It was a signature win over a marquee program, even if this UNLV squad certainly isn't the same group of renegade winners from the Jerry Tarkanian days. In fact, these Runnin' Rebels don't even resemble what they were five weeks ago. The team that led the Mountain West with eight 3-pointers a game made nine in this one – but on 36 attempts. They missed their first seven from behind the line.
Anthony Marshall scored 15 for the Rebels, who close their season losing six of 11 and without a victory away from home since Jan. 28. Their last two appearances in The Pit – the first against to the actual tenants, New Mexico – have resulted in a pair of losses by a combined 24 points.
It was CU and its fans who felt at home in this one. With 13 minutes left and a 20-point lead, the student section was shouting "This is our house."
The ending was dicey. Colorado was standing around, seemingly trying to run out the clock for a while. But for a team that wasn't expected to be here 10 days ago, all wins are pretty.
The Buffaloes, who made a rather unheralded move to the Pac-12 this season, are now the only team left in the tournament from the conference.