The top-seeded Huskies led by 14 before the Buffaloes cut the lead to 60-56 with 1:01 left. McKinley Wright hit a 3-pointer with 17 seconds left to cut Washington’s lead to three, but the Buffaloes let David Crisp get behind them for a breakaway layup to seal it.
After struggling in the first half, Washington (26-7) kicked its long-armed, swarming defense into a faster gear and the fifth-seeded Buffaloes (21-12) had trouble handling it. For Huskies head coach Mike Hopkins the defensive surge was initiated by the Pac-12 Defensive player of the year Matisse Thybulle.
“Well, you know, the first half, Colorado came out like they’ve been. They came out really aggressive defensively, offensively, and shot 47 percent from the field, 50. They went to the foul line. You know, down 6, we just challenged these guys to play defense. When you’ve got the National Defensive Player of the Year, who he should win it, it changes things. And our guys battled. We played better defense, held them to 20 percent from the field, 12 from the 3 point line.
Colorado shot 2 of 16 from 3-point range in the second half and had 18 turnovers overall, leading to 24 Huskies points.
Washington had 13 steals and held the Buffaloes to 32 percent shooting to earn a spot in Saturday night’s title game against Oregon or Arizona State. While Thybulle was credit with initiating the Huskies ball-hawking defense down the stretch the senior defensive specialist credit a team effort for the Huskies win.
“I think some guys stepped up huge for us today,” Thybulle said after the game. “Jamal Bey brought us some energy, because we came out flat, and we need someone to be a spark to us. And he came out in a huge way. Nahz did what Nahz does, and he was able to exploit some matchups.”
Tyler Bey had 22 points and 11 rebounds, but Wright was held to seven points on 1-of-10 shooting.
The Buffaloes were looking to recapture the magic of 2012, when they won four games in four days to win the Pac-12 title.
Colorado climbed the first two rungs in Las Vegas, grinding out a low-scoring win over California, outlasting Oregon State after blowing most of a 21-point lead.
Washington’s zone gave the Buffaloes all kinds of trouble in two regular-season meetings. The Huskies opened with 12 straight points in a seven-point win in Boulder and led by up to 15 in a nine-point win in Seattle.
The Buffaloes got off to a much better start in Round 3.
Colorado handled Washington’s defensive pressure without much trouble and used a pair of 8-0 runs to lead 33-27 at halftime.
Washington missed its first five shots and went 4 for 15 from the 3-point arc, but held Colorado scoreless for a nearly four-minute stretch to keep the Buffaloes close.
The Huskies kept their defensive mojo going into the second half.
Contesting shots and jumping into passing lanes, Washington shut the Buffaloes down, going on a 10-0 run to go up 43-35. Colorado missed its first nine shots of the second half and had four turnovers against Washington’s pressure.