ALBUQUERQUE, N.M. — For anyone familiar with Colorado basketball, the scene was hard to believe.
The Buffs leading UNLV, of all teams, by 20. Their fans standing in The Pit, of all places, chanting "This is our house."
Well, CU's first appearance in the NCAA tournament in nine years didn't turn out to be a breeze, but yes, maybe the Buffs could get used to this college basketball thing.
Freshman Askia Booker came off the bench for 16 points and Andre Roberson had 12 points and 16 rebounds, as Colorado fought off a furious UNLV comeback for a 68-64 victory Thursday night at The Pit.
"It's been great," Roberson said. "I feel like our guys are playing well, playing with a lot of confidence, and we're just going to try to keep it rolling."
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 Saturday against No. 3 seed Baylor, a 68-60 winner over South Dakota State earlier and a former Big 12 rival of the Buffs.
For the first 27 minutes of this South Regional game, Tad Boyle's team played with a freedom and looseness that made 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. A few minutes later, it was 53-33.
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.
UNLV went on a 22-4 run and cut the lead to two on Justin Hawkins' 3-pointer with 4:20 left. From there, though, sixth-seeded 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 win.
"Our guys were not handling it well, that was obvious," Boyle said. "We talked about playing with poise, playing with composure and continuing to attack. When we got stops, we wanted to run. That's one of the things that had gotten us that lead to begin with."
Boyle improved to 10-2 in the postseason with Colorado, combining this year's run with last year's trip to the semis of the NIT. Despite the shaky finish, Colorado led wire-to-wire in this one and now has led for 160 of 200 minutes since the start of the Pac-12 tournament.
The latest was a signature win over a marquee program, though this UNLV 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.
"Our shooters felt comfortable. Everybody felt comfortable. We just didn't make shots and they did," guard Anthony Marshall said.
Marshall scored 15 and Hawkins had 11 for the Runnin' Rebels, who started Dave Rice's first season as head coach at 16-2 but lost six of their last 11 and didn't win away from home after 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.
At times, it looked like the total could have been worse. UNLV's comeback was impressive, but trailing by 20, it would have taken a near perfect final 15 minutes and the Rebels came short of that.
"We made a fight," Marshall said. "Never rolled over and just kept battling. It's very disappointing and hurtful for our seniors. They put in so much time and effort into the program over the years. They've been tremendous. So to go out like this is very disappointing and hurtful."
Meanwhile, CU and its fans started feeling very much at home in The Pit. With 13 minutes left and a 20-point lead, the student section was shouting "this is our house."
The ending was dicier. Colorado was standing around, seemingly trying to run out the clock for a while. Colorado turned the ball over 23 times — 10 of those in the last 10 minutes. 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. And for a day, at least, they put a rest to some of the talk bubbling that the Mountain West had surpassed the Pac-12 as one of the nation's power conferences.
"We owed it to the rest of the teams in our league ... to play well tonight," Boyle said.