It was only a little over a month ago, as the preseason rounded the midway point and no one was predicting a 5-0 start for the Colorado women's basketball team, when first-year head coach JR Payne expressed concerns regarding the depth of the bench her 2016-17 Buffaloes would feature.
Much has changed in a few short weeks. Indeed the Buffs are 5-0 after winning just seven games all last season, and the contributions of a short but highly effective bench is a big reason why.
CU remained undefeated by running away from St. Francis (N.Y.) for an 81-54 win Friday in the first game of the Omni Classic at the Coors Events Center. The Buffs will look to continue their best undefeated run since a 9-0 start in 2013 against SMU Saturday at 11 a.m.
Sophomore Ariana Freeman and redshirt freshman Monica Burich came off the bench on Friday to turn in the best performances of their young careers, while sophomore guard Kennedy Leonard frustrated St. Francis with another outstanding all-around performance.
"It's more than pleasant — it's a wonderful surprise," Payne said of her team's bench contributions. "Not just that (Freeman and Burich) had 24 and 19 tonight, but that they've been consistently going toward that."
Freeman made 11 of 16 shots en route to 24 points — topping the 16 points she scored all season in 19 brief reserve appearances with Louisville as a freshman in 2014-15. Freeman also recorded three rebounds and two assists in 26 minutes.
Burich, who missed her true freshman season last year due to a torn ACL, went 7-for-11 from the floor and finished with 19 points, eight rebounds, and two steals. Freeman and Burich also combined to go 5-for-5 at the free throw line.
Granted, the bench played extended minutes Friday in a game the Buffs led by as much as 30 points early in the fourth quarter, but CU's depth has provided a spark throughout the team's 5-0 start. Burich and reserve forward Zoe Beard-Fails combined to post 11 rebounds in CU's upset of then-No. 15 Kentucky last weekend, and Friday's performance was Freeman's third double-digit scoring effort in five games.
The play of the bench has been even more clutch given the continued knee trouble of Lauren Huggins, who boasts more playing experience than anyone on CU's roster besides fellow senior Haley Smith. Huggins has missed the first five games and there still is no timetable for her return.
"We all go out and do our jobs and we all know our role on the team," Freeman said. "My role is to attack in the half-court, rebound, and defend. Doing our jobs I think just leads to easy points."
St. Francis remained close through much of the first half before a 9-2 CU run, featuring six points from Freeman, pushed the Buffs' lead to 11 points with just under three minutes remaining in the half. CU took a 36-24 advantage into the break after a pair of buckets from Freeman to close the second quarter.
CU blew open the game with an 11-3 that opened the third quarter, a burst sparked by Leonard. The sophomore guard scored nine of those 11 points while providing the assist on the other basket, and from there the Buffs cruised.
Leonard finished with 16 points and five steals in just 19 minutes, as all five CU starters played less than 20 minutes ahead of the short turnaround before Saturday's finale of the Omni Classic.
"It's important to have everyone with fresh legs, and everyone pretty much played the same amount of minutes," Payne said. "We should go into (Saturday) with live legs."
Colorado 81, St. Francis Brooklyn 54
At Coors Events Center
St. Francis Brooklyn (1-3)
Palarino 5-7 6-8 17, Delaney 4-10 2-2 12, Levey 1-3 2-2 4, Andersen 0-0 -0 0, Iozzia 2-4 0-0 5, Ehling 1-3 0-0 3, Keltos 2-7 2-2 6, Johnson 2-11 0-0 5, Phipps 0-4 2-2 2, Direnzo 0-4 0-0 0, Crupi 0-1 0-0 0, Wagner 0-1 0-0 0. Totals 17-55 14-16 54
Ellis 1-3 0-0 2, Correal 1-1 0-0 2, Robinson 1-7 0-0 3, Leonard 6-11 1-2 16, Smith 1-5 0-0 2, Caylao-Do 2-8 0-0 5, Watts 1-2 0-0 2, Jones 0-0 -0 0, Freeman 11-16 2-2 24, Thomas 1-3 0-0 2, Burich 7-11 3-3 19, Beard-Fails 2-2 0-0 4. Totals 34-69 6-7 81.
Score by quarters:St. Francis Brooklyn (1-3) 13 11 15 15 — 54
3-point field goals — SF:Delaney 2-5, Palarino 1-1, Iozzia 1-3, Ehling 1-2, Johnson 1-5, Keltos 0-3 , Phipps 0-3, Direnzo 0-1, Crupi 0-1; CU: Leonard 3-7, Burich 2-2, Robinson 1-4, Baylao-Do 1-6, Ellis 0-1, Smith 0-3, Freeman 0-2, Thomas 0-1 Total fouls — SF: 7; CU: 17. Fouled out — None. Technical fouls — None.