It all starts on the defensive end.
Colorado State moved to 4-0 on the season with a 84-61 victory over the University of Missouri-Kansas City on Friday night.
The Kangaroos, led by former UNLV head coach Marvin Menzies, came into Moby Arena and to their credit, UMKC played a physical style that gave the Rams some troubles over the course of the game.
After the Rams jumped out to a 13-0 lead to begin the night, the Kangaroos actually out-scored the Green & Gold 27-25 over the final 15 minutes of the first half. CSU still took a 38-27 lead into the break, but the visitors definitely did a nice job of throwing a lot of different looks at the Rams defensively. Their physicality really mucked up the game as well, which allowed them to hang around and keep things interesting.
For a brief moment in the second half, UMKC put a little scare into Ram Nation when the Kangaroos pulled within 6 points.
Starting with a steal from Isaiah Stevens that led to a transition layup for Nique Clifford, though, the Rams really turned up the defensive intensity down the stretch. And after momentarily allowing the Kangaroos to make it a two-score game, CSU proceeded to pull away with a 15-2 run, erasing any fears of a letdown loss in the process.
Although Clifford’s first points of the night did not come until about 23 minutes into the matchup, beginning with that fastbreak layup off of a picture-perfect feed from Stevens, the Colorado transfer really provided an offensive spark when the Rams needed it most.
Clifford was a perfect 5-of-5 from the floor in the second half to finish with a crucial 13 points. And what was particularly encouraging was he did a little bit of everything. The athletic guard attacked aggressively and found success in the paint. He hit a big 3-pointer to extend the lead to 20. He knocked down the only free throws he attempted as well (2-of-2).
Leading the Rams in scoring, Patrick Cartier responded from an unusually quiet performance in the win over Northern Colorado by scoring 14 points in this one. The big man stretched the floor for the Rams with three makes from deep (3-of-6). He did a nice job of simply taking what the defense was giving him too, as most of the night UMKC was daring him to put it up from beyond the arc.
In addition to the aforementioned, Joel Scott scored 12 points, most of which came in the second half. Josiah Strong had the best scoring performance of his CSU career thus far with 10 points and four assists. Javonte Johnson got in the mix with the first 7 points of his CSU career too.
As far as his typical standard goes, Isaiah Stevens was relatively quiet offensively. The veteran point guard had just 6 points in the win, which is the fewest he’s scored in any game since the 2022 NCAA Tournament loss to Michigan (8 points). It’s only the fifth time over the last three seasons he’s finished a game with less than 10 points.
While he may not have had the biggest night in terms of scoring production, Stevens did dish out four assists during CSU’s run to close out the win. And his two steals each set up transition scores the other way.
In the end, it was the defensive effort that allowed the Rams to pull away and earn a 23-point win. The Rams forced 18 turnovers on Friday, resulting in 17 points the other way. CSU held UMKC to just 40 percent shooting overall and 27 percent from deep. The Rams did a great job of not giving up any easy ones either. The Kangaroos had only 2 fastbreak points all night.
Following the hot start to the 2023-24 campaign, the Rams will look to keep it up when they hit the road next week for a midseason tournament in Kansas City.
CSU will take on Boston College Wednesday afternoon, with the winner facing whoever advances between Creighton and Loyola-Chicago. The two losing teams on Wednesday will also play on Thursday in a consolation game.