BOULDER, Colo. – Alec Burks had 25 points and 10 rebounds, helping Colorado hold off Kent State 81-74 on Tuesday night and advance to the NIT semifinals at Madison Square Garden.
The Buffaloes (24-13) will play the winner of Alabama and Miami next Tuesday in the Big Apple.
Snubbed by the NCAA selection committee, Colorado has used the oversight as motivation, routing Texas Southern and California by a combined 31 points. But the Buffs had to hang on against pesky Kent State, converting 4 of 5 free throws in the final 1:13.
The Buffs are attempting to capture their first NIT crown since 1940.
Justin Greene finished with 20 points for the Golden Flashes (25-12), who were playing their third straight NIT game on the road.
Colorado took control late in the second half when Marcus Relphorde converted a three-point play to make it 69-67 Buffs and Burks hit a reverse layup to extend the lead to four with 4:29 remaining.
Try as they might, the Golden Flashes couldn't tie the game back up as the Buffaloes punched their ticket to New York. Burks dribbled out the final seconds near midcourt, setting off a celebration as Frank Sinatra's "New York, New York" blared over the loudspeakers.
Freshman Andre Roberson had 13 points and 12 rebounds, and Cory Higgins inched closer to the school's scoring record with 13 points. He needs 13 more to tie Richard Roby's mark of 2,001 points. Higgins played alongside Roby as a freshman.
Higgins already owns Colorado marks for games played (131), started (130), minutes (4,446) and made free throws (567).
His records might be one day be challenged by Burks — provided, of course, the sensational sophomore decides to stick around instead of bolt for the NBA.
Burks recently broke CU's 40-year-old single-season scoring mark, amassing 759 points by utilizing a smooth jumper and a quick first step that got him around defenders.
The 6-foot-6 Burks was the first Buffs player in the 15-year history of the Big 12 championship to make the all-tournament team, helping the squad beat Iowa State and Kansas State — for a third time this season — before being eliminated by Kansas.
Colorado thought for sure its body of work was enough for inclusion into the NCAA tournament. So much so that coach Tad Boyle held a gathering at his house, a watch party to celebrate the Buffs making the field.
But elation turned to dejection as the Buffs were left out of the brackets.
Instead out pouting, the Buffs have been performing on the court.
Colorado took a 36-31 at halftime lead on Kent State when Roberson broke free underneath and hit a layup, bringing the capacity crowd to its feet.
In the early going, the Buffs were a little ragged as they adjusted to the absence of point guard Nate Tomlinson, who was sidelined with a left shoulder injury.
The Golden Flashes, who have only one senior on the roster, have looked impressive in the NIT, knocking off Saint Mary's and Fairfield on the road. They've logged more than 8,000 miles and played in three different time zones in an effort to make their first NIT trip to Madison Square Garden.
It's been a solid season for the Golden Flashes as they became the first Mid-American Conference team in more than two decades to capture back-to-back outright regular-season titles. They captured plenty of awards as well, including MAC player of the year (Greene), coach of the year (Geno Ford), defensive player of the Year (Michael Porrini) and sixth man of the year (Carlton Guyton).
Porrini finished with 14 points, and Rodriquez Sherman added 12.
Kent State was making its ninth NIT appearance. The team made it to the quarterfinals in 2000, but lost to Penn State 81-74 on the road.