This time Colorado's Tad Boyle and Arizona's Sean Miller made the ceremonial post-game handshake with the game in progress, with five seconds on the clock, and with two Arizona timeouts in the bank.

If you are ever going to get a late-season smile out of a college basketball coach, or an expression of relief, that would've been the time.

Arizona won 71-57 Thursday, but as Miller puffed out his cheeks, loosened the knot in his tie and exited the court, he looked as if he had just survived a walk on a ledge.

He later confessed that he continues to have "a lot of anxiety before home games," and is absent the comfort of a year ago when he put Derrick Williams on the floor and thought "this is a game that's going to be hard for our opponent."

What's more, Miller said that Colorado "strikes fear in all of us."

In February 2012, it is clear that basketball is going to be hard for the Wildcats, maybe not Saturday against Utah or in a few weeks against Kevin O'Neill's USC Trojans, but on most nights this is the way of Pac-12 basketball for the clump of teams now separated at the top by one game.

Thursday's differential was 14, but the game, and the tenor in the arena, was more like that of a two- or three-pointer until the final minute or so.

If you concentrate on the difficulty, or on the stress, it can make you nutty.

"If you make every game life or death, it's just no fun," said Miller.

Rather than speak in terms of conference championships, NCAA tournament berths or magic numbers, Miller has introduced a more sensible way of approaching the year's final six regular season games.

"We play with chemistry, togetherness, and we play hard," said Arizona's coach. "We are in a steady climb of being a better team."

All Arizona had to do Thursday night was be a better team than it was in Boulder, Colo., 19 days earlier. How hard was that?

In its 64-63 loss at the Coors Events Center, the Wildcats shot .345 afield, missed 17 of 20 three-point attempts and couldn't overcome its poor shooting because, typical of a road team, it couldn't avoid fouling excessively, permitting the energized Buffaloes to shoot 26 free throws in front of a raucous sellout crowd.

But Thursday at comfy McKale Center, Arizona out-shot Colorado 35-14 at the foul line and, almost predictably, it was CU that struggled shooting (.373 for the game); the Buffaloes couldn't shut off the din created by 14,225 fans.

"We couldn't execute, we couldn't rebound, we couldn't stop plays like we do at home," said Buffaloes guard Carlon Brown, who scored 19 points in Boulder, including the clinching three-pointer. On Thursday, Brown scored 11 and struggled. He even jammed his shooting hand when his attempt at a pinwheel dunk got stuck against the rim.

On Thursday, CU ran out of fuel. Same team, different psyche.

Colorado hadn't won a late-season conference game of note since February 1969, when Sox Walseth was the Buffaloes' coach, and Miller was 3 months old. That was the year CU beat Kansas, won the Big 8 title and got over the basketball hump for one of the few times in the last 100 years.

The last time CU played a significant February game with first-place type ramifications was 1997. The Buffaloes, 8-3 in the Big 12 (as they were entering Thursday's game), played 10-1 Kansas at Phog Allen Fieldhouse - and got thumped 114-74.

So this is an improvement, isn't it?

The Buffaloes haven't been able to win a Pac-12 road game of any consequence, or any road game of consequence, and they still have to play at both Oregon schools, which doesn't look promising.

"This was a huge opportunity for us," said CU senior Autin Dufault. "We wanted to separate ourselves a little bit."

Instead, it is Arizona that made another move up the chain. Even a three-game win streak in this league changes everything.

"Three in a row is always good," said UA junior Solomon Hill, who continues to perform at an all-league level.

Since he was ejected at Utah three weeks ago, Hill has averaged 14.5 points and 9.3 rebounds per game. Those aren't NBA-lottery numbers, but in Pac-12 basketball, they are invaluable.

Hill has become Arizona's acknowledged leader, growing before our eyes, and it couldn't be more timely. The defining games remain to be played.

It's unlikely any Pac-12 contender will create separation between itself and a group that includes Arizona, Cal, Washington and Oregon. It's also premature to think that UCLA won't be a factor down the stretch, and although Oregon State is three games behind in the loss column, the Beavers have the personnel to beat anybody.

So Miller's approach seems to be healthy. Fear everybody. Don't look ahead. Play hard.

Given that tone, let it be said that the Wildcats are unlikely to overlook anybody, or get fat-headed, between now and next season.