ALBUQUERQUE -- The difference between 11th-seeded Colorado and sixth-seeded UNLV on Thursday night can be explained in the simplest of terms.
For the majority of Colorado's 68-64 victory at The Pit, the Buffaloes were a team and the Rebels were not.
Colorado was tougher, smarter, and played harder. But all of that can be placed under a grander label: Togetherness. For most of the game, the Rebels were a bunch of athletes who happened to being wearing the same colors. The Buffaloes, meanwhile, won their first NCAA tournament victory since 1997 by operating as a unit.
"From the start we made a couple shots and they missed a few and they started going a lot of one-on-one," said Colorado freshman guard Spencer Dinwiddie. "The way we play defense that really played into our hands."
Did it ever.
While UNLV chucked more and more three-pointers -- the Rebels were nine of 36 for the game -- Colorado exploited UNLV's poor help defense and got layup after layup. They also outrebounded the Rebels 27-12 in the first half in building an 11-point advantage, and that included one rebound when 6-foot-1 freshman guard Askia Booker took the ball away from three UNLV players, all of whom were several inches taller.
Plays like that imprinted the game with a sense that one team was fighting for victory while the other squad hoped to stumble into a win.
"We knew coming in that we could drive on them and that we could score in the post," says senior Nate Tomlinson. "It happened just like we thought it would. We also pride ourselves on being a good defensive rebounding team, and the way they take those long threes it helped us."
UNLV forced Colorado into 23 turnovers, 14 in the second half. It helped the Rebels cut a 20-point deficit with 13 minutes remaining down to two with 4:19 left. They would get no closer, however, and a season that began with such promise, including an upset of then No. 1 North Carolina in November, ended like the previous two, with the Rebels bounced after one NCAA tournament game.
"I did think that they played with a greater sense of urgency than we did," UNLV coach Dave Rice said.
That was putting it mildly. Senior guard Carlon Brown made Colorado's first two baskets, then sophomore forward André Robinson scored six of the Buffaloes next nine points, and suddenly Colorado led 14-4. Brown and Robinson each finished with 12, and Booker came off the bench to score 12 in the first 20 minutes (and 16 for the game). It was an early blitz that UNLV didn't expect nor could they counter, as they shot 27 percent in the first half and 32 percent for the game.
Chace Stanback and Mike Moser, UNLV's top two scorers, combined to shoot seven of 27.
"With Chace, we just knew we had to run him off the three-point line because he's comfortable pulling off the transition and off the jab step. So I tried to do my best job of crowding him," Brown said. "With Moser, André did a great job crowding him and making sure he didn't get offensive rebounds. We were able to get stops and run."
Colorado's good start was a reminder that momentum coming into the tournament matters. The Buffaloes reeled off four consecutive victories to end the season and win the Pac-12 tournament. UNLV lost two of its last four and were knocked out of the Mountain West Conference tournament in the semifinals, even though it was held on their home court.
"I believe in this team and they believe in themselves," Colorado coach Tad Boyle said. "And as long as you do that this time of year you've got a shot."
It was also an important win for the embattled Pac-12, which has been ridiculed all season for being stocked with mediocre teams.
"We owed it to the rest of the teams in our league to play well tonight," Boyle said. "There is only way you get rid of that stigma. This is a great postseason win to kind of get us hopefully on track to do that, and we have another opportunity on Saturday [against third-seeded Baylor] to do that again."
In the run-up to Saturday's game, the Buffaloes will be surely told how the Bears are longer and more athletic and more talented. But the axiom that held true on Thursday will likely prevail in that game as well.
The better team will win.