CU women's basketball preview: USC
MATCHUP: No. 20 Colorado Buffaloes (10-1) at USC Trojans (9-2).
GAME TIME: Friday, 7 p.m. MST, Galen Center, Los Angeles.
BROADCAST: TV — None. Radio — 1600 AM.
COACHES: Colorado — JR Payne, 1st season (10-1, 111-114 overall). USC — Cynthia Cooper-Dyke, 4th season (56-41, 206-147 overall).
LEADERS: Colorado — Scoring: G Kennedy Leonard, So., 19.1 ppg; Rebounding: C Zoe Correal, Jr., 5.7 rpg; Assists: Leonard, 5.8 apg. USC — Scoring: F Kristen Simon, Jr., 15.5 ppg; Rebounding: Simon, 10.1 rpg; Assists: G Minyon Moore, Fr., 5.5 apg.
NOTABLE: The Buffs posted one of their two Pac-12 wins last year against USC, with current senior Haley Smith leading the way with 17 points and seven rebounds...CU leads all Pac-12 teams in turnover margin at plus-7.45...Leonard's assist average of 5.8 ranks fourth in the Pac-12. Leonard also scored 22 of her 29 points in the fourth quarter of the Buffs' most recent game, their first loss of the year against Wyoming on Dec. 21...CU has posted its two lowest assist totals of the season in the past two games, recording six against Mississippi Valley and 13 against Wyoming...CU owns a 2-4 all-time mark at USC...The Buffs play at UCLA on Sunday and host Arizona in their first league game at home on Jan. 6.
Despite the sparkling undefeated record and ascending to No. 15 in the national AP top-25 poll, coach JR Payne couldn't avoid noticing cracks in her team's armor.
The Colorado women's basketball team escaped with wins in several games earlier in December despite the Buffaloes playing less than their best. That came to a screeching halt last week, as Wyoming finally sullied the Buffs' unblemished record by handing CU an 82-75 defeat.
In a quirk of the schedule, instead of immediately going back to work to right those wrongs, the Buffs instead had a few days to mull their first defeat during the holiday lull. Now getting back to action with the onset of Pac-12 Conference play, the Buffs' first defeat, while always discouraging, nonetheless may have arrived at an opportune time as CU visits USC on Friday night.
"Honestly, I don't think we've been playing well the last couple weeks," said Payne, whose club dropped to No. 20 in this week's poll. "We've been able to squeak out some wins, but really there's been some slippage on things that are really important to us in the last couple weeks. We saw it at Mississippi Valley and we saw it against Wyoming, which unfortunately turned into a loss.
"Those are things we need to shore up, we need to do better at. We definitely have been going back to the basics fundamentally, and really talking about the discipline and doing the detail things that we really value. I think everyone has re-centered a little bit."
While the Buffs' unexpected nonconference surge included an impressive win against a Kentucky squad still ranked No. 17, Friday's league opener gives CU its first opportunity to test its newfound mettle against the Pac-12's best. The Trojans likewise have a win against a ranked foe to their credit, having toppled then-No. 19 Texas A&M on Nov. 30. USC also suffered a narrow four-point loss against No. 5 Mississippi State on Dec. 18.
"We've got to be able to contain them in transition. That will be huge," Payne said. "They're first and foremost a transition team offensively. We've got to be able to contain penetration better than we have the last couple games. Pretty much everything they do ends up at the rim from an athletic standpoint."
USC presents an opponent enjoying a similar turnaround to the Buffs. The Trojans went only 11-20 last year with a 7-11 mark in Pac-12 play, yet they have used a balanced offense and a league-leading .406 mark from 3-point range to forge a 9-2 start. A revenge factor may also be in play for the Trojans, who were the victims in one of CU's two Pac-12 wins a year ago.
"We can handle their pressure. We just need to be aggressive against it," Payne said. "I think an important factor in the outcome will be rebounding. Both teams are kind of in the lower half in rebounding in the conference, and that will be a big deciding factor, I think."