BOULDER, Colo. (AP) - The Colorado Buffaloes turned a snub into a spark, riding the sting of disappointment all the way to Madison Square Garden.
They're in the Final Four, a big deal - even if it's in the NIT instead of the NCAA tournament.
Alec Burks led the way to the Big Apple, scoring 25 points and grabbing 10 rebounds as Colorado held off Kent State 81-74 on Tuesday night to advance to the semifinals.
Ignored by the NCAA selection committee, Colorado has used the oversight as motivation, routing Texas Southern and California by a combined 31 points. The Buffs had to hang on against pesky Kent State, converting 4 of 5 free throws in the final 1:13 to advance.
The Buffs (24-13) will play the winner of Alabama and Miami next Tuesday as they try to capture their first NIT crown since 1940.
``We're showing everyone we should've been in the (NCAA) tournament,'' said Burks, who had an IV at halftime as he battled a bug that zapped his strength. ``I feel like we're a tough team, so we just bounced back from the disappointment.''
Justin Greene finished with 20 points for the Golden Flashes (25-12), who were playing their third straight NIT game on the road.
``We knew we were going to be on the road in every round and we just wanted to come out and play hard and be a scrappy bunch like we are,'' Greene said. ``Give ourselves a chance to win down the stretch.
``Unfortunately, we didn't get it done tonight.''
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.
``We're trying to change the culture around Colorado basketball,'' Burks said. ``This shows it's a bright future for everybody.
``Everyone wants to go to New York and play basketball.''
Especially when Houston - site of this year's Final Four - was never an option, despite the fact that many analysts thought the Buffaloes deserved a spot in the 68-team field.
``The goal is to win the (NIT) tournament, so if we do that, I don't think we will have any regrets whatsoever,'' senior Cory Higgins said.
Freshman Andre Roberson had 13 points and 12 rebounds, and 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 gets 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.
``I've tried to put that behind me since this tournament has started,'' Levi Knutson said. ``Our team has done a great job of that. We're just focused on this tournament and going to New York.''
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).
``Colorado is just a little bit deeper and a little bit better,'' Ford said. ``If it was a neutral court game, maybe we could have pulled it out. On the road, we just weren't quite good enough to get it done.''