KJ Simpson's late jumper pushes Colorado past Florida 102-100 in March Madness thriller

INDIANAPOLIS (AP) — Colorado guard KJ Simpson spent three years and dozens of practices working on the shots his team might need in critical moments.

His work paid off on the biggest stage in college basketball.

Simpson rattled in a tiebreaking jumper from the baseline with 2 seconds left, and 10th-seeded Colorado beat seventh-seeded Florida in a 102-100 thriller in the first round of the NCAA Tournament on Friday. He finished with 23 points, five rebounds and five assists to set up Sunday's South Region matchup against Marquette.

“We always go through preparation with time and score, situations like that in practice, and it was just another one of those times,” Simpson said. “Obviously, it was a play that was set up for multiple actions out of it. I happened to break free, was looking to just drive and create something, whatever was the best lane, and noticed the defender got a little off balance. I just shot what I shoot a bunch of times.”

Simpson's shot hung on the rim for a moment before dropping through the net. When Walter Clayton Jr.'s half-court heave missed for Florida, the Buffaloes began a wild celebration led by 6-foot-11, 285-pound Eddie Lampkin Jr. running around the court, nodding his head and yelling with fans.

The Buffs (26-10) and Gators (24-12) produced the most impressive offensive game so far in this year's March Madness, showing no fatigue after both played in conference title games. Colorado beat Boise State in the First Four on Wednesday, then extended its single-season school record for wins.

Barely.

“I thought to myself at halftime, if we don’t start guarding better ... we’ve got to score 100 to win tonight,” Colorado coach Tad Boyle said. “And we needed 102. Actually we only needed 101, but we got 102.”

The Buffs’ astonishing offensive totals: 34 of 54 (63%) from the field, 6 of 10 on 3-pointers and 28 of 33 (84.8%) on free throws. The Gators made five more 3s (11 of 25) and shot 51.5% overall (35 of 68) to keep pace.

Colorado was nearly unstoppable for a long stretch in the second half and led 94-81 with 4:28 to play. Then Clayton single-handedly rallied the Gators, taking advantage of the Buffs' mistakes and scoring Florida's final 16 points.

Clayton converted a three-point play with 1:12 left. He buried a 3 with 37 seconds left to get Florida within 99-96, and then pulled up from well outside the arc for the tying basket to make it 100-all with 9 seconds left.

Clayton finished with a career-high 33 points. Simpson guarded him late, without much success.

“I thought he was right there a lot of times,” Boyle said of Simpson. “We were right there. He just made some tough shots. That last 3 at the end, I don’t think it was bad defense, we just came down and he raised up. He’s a good player.”

Lampkin scored 21 points for Colorado. Tristan da Silva added 17 points on 7-of-10 shooting, and J’Vonne Hadley had 16 as all five Buffs starters scored in double figures.

Will Richard scored 15 points and Zyon Pullin had 13 for Florida, which had won its previous nine first-round games, dating to a 2010 double-overtime loss to Brigham Young.

WHISTLE STOP

The Buffs appeared to swing the game their way when Florida coach Todd Golden drew a technical foul after Lampkin made a layup. Colorado converted that into a five-point play for an 82-72 lead with 7:44 to go.

Golden said he’s only received three technicals in his coaching career.

“It was just a confusing situation, a very delayed and-one call and then explain that he tried to blow his whistle, but his whistle wasn’t working,” Golden said. “But nobody saw him call foul until about five seconds after the play. I wasn’t very happy about it.”

Twice, referee Eric Curry raised his hand in the air to call a foul and blew into a whistle that made no sound. The first one led to the technical. After the second, Curry swapped out his whistle for one held by standby ref James Hicks.

“it’s never happened to me in my coaching career where somebody’s whistle doesn’t work and then five seconds later, we’re finding out it’s an and-one,” Golden said.

HONORING HANDLOGTEN

Florida’s players wore warmup shirts with injured teammate Micah Handlogten’s name and jersey number, 3, on the back. The 7-foot sophomore, who broke his left leg in last weekend’s Southeastern Conference Tournament championship game loss to Auburn, sat behind the bench.

The Gators were playing in the city where they first reached the NCAA title game in 2000 and then won their first of back-to-back national titles six years later. Former quarterback Anthony Richardson, now with the Indianapolis Colts, was in attendance, dressed in a bright orange shirt.

UP NEXT

Colorado will try to win its third game in five days when it faces the second-seeded Golden Eagles.

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AP March Madness bracket: https://apnews.com/hub/ncaa-mens-bracket and coverage: https://apnews.com/hub/march-madness