CU women's basketball preview: Colorado State

GAME TIME: Thursday, 7 p.m., Coors Events Center.

MATCHUP: Colorado State Rams (5-3) at No. 18 Colorado Buffaloes (8-0).

BROADCAST: Radio — 1600 AM, 102.9 FM in Fort Collins; TV — Pac-12 Network.

COACHES: Colorado State — Ryun Williams, 5th season (95-40, 407-230 overall); Colorado — JR Payne, 1st season, (8-0, 109-113 overall).

LEADERS: Colorado State — Scoring: G Ellen Nystrom, Sr., 14.6 ppg; Rebounding: Nystrom, 6.8 rpg; Assists: Nystrom, 4.5 apg. Colorado — Scoring: G Kennedy Leonard, So., 16.3 ppg; Rebounding: F Monica Burich, R-Fr., and F Zoe Correal, So., 6.1 rpg; Assists: Leonard, 6.4 apg.

NOTABLE: CU had won seven consecutive games against CSU until the Rams' last-second victory last year in Fort Collins...The Buffs lead the all-time series 35-12 with a 23-2 mark in Boulder...Buffs guard Alexis Robinson has gone 7-for-11 on 3-pointers in the past two games...CSU senior forward Elin Gustavsson owns a career scoring average of 10 points per game, but she has averaged 25 points in the past two games against the Buffs...Over the past three games CU senior Haley Smith has shot 19-for-34 from the floor with a 9-for-13 mark on 3-pointers...Former Broomfield High star Callie Kaiser has appeared in all eight games off the bench for the Rams, averaging four points while going 14-for-17 at the free throw line...


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The Buffs play at Mississippi Valley on Saturday.

Kennedy Leonard recalls how heated the battle was. And she certainly remembers the disappointment that arrived so jarringly at the end.

Still, as a freshman just six games into her collegiate career, Leonard didn't own a firm grasp of the depth of the rivalry between her Colorado Buffaloes and the Colorado State Rams.

A year after suffering a stunning loss in what at the time was a breakout game for Leonard, the 18th-ranked Buffs will look to regain their winning ways against their state rival Thursday night at the Coors Events Center (7 p.m., Pac-12 Network).

"I just remember being emotional and it being more than just another game," Leonard said. "Obviously we lost and I wasn't too happy, but both my parents went to CSU so it's kind of an in-family rivalry too. They don't really like CSU anymore and now they're Buffs. Just playing against CSU and I guess having my first big game, that probably did excite me a little bit and proved that I could play against that kind of competition in that environment."

Leonard posted three double-digit games in her first five CU contests last year, yet the CSU game marked her first double-digit scoring effort while also shooting at least 50 percent from the floor (7-for-13). She topped 20 points for the first time (21), and her layup with 3.6 seconds left at Moby Arena put the Buffs in position to pick up their eighth straight win against CSU until the Rams' Ellen Nystrom knocked down a jumper with one second left.

Nystrom is back this season, bringing team-leading averages of 14.6 points, 6.8 rebounds, and 4.5 assists to the Coors Events Center. Leonard has emerged as the bona fide leader for the upstart Buffs, averaging 16.3 points and 6.4 assists going into her first rematch against the Rams.

"Last year, I think it was different. We're not from Colorado so we don't really know that whole thing," Leonard said. "Obviously the football team, when they play CSU we can feel that it's a big deal. When every other sport plays CSU it's a big deal. Just being a part of that and trying to get that win is a huge thing."

In their surprising 8-0 start the Buffs have displayed vast improvement in almost every major statistical category both offensively and defensively from a year ago. First-year head coach JR Payne expected the Buffs to make strides after a seven-win season. Yet even she has been pleasantly surprised with the way CU has been markedly improved in areas she expected the team to struggle, such as rebounding.

Last year, CU averaged 36.8 rebounds a game and was outrebounded by an average of about two boards per game. So far this season the Buffs are averaging 43.5 rebounds per game while outrebounding the opposition by an average of 5.2 per game.

"We're rebounding better than I thought we would," Payne said. "We've had a couple games where we've been outrebounded. I thought it would be more of a struggle. But everyone seems to be buying into that toughness mentality on the glass. Which really is all that it is. You don't have to be able to jump out of the gym or be 6-3. You just have to consistently do it, and we have more than one or two or three people that are doing that."

Pat Rooney: rooneyp@dailycamera.com or twitter.com/prooney07