CU women's basketball preview: No. 8 Stanford
MATCHUP: Colorado Buffaloes (13-10, 3-9 Pac-12) at Stanford Cardinal (20-4, 10-2)
GAME TIME: Friday, 9 p.m. MT, at Maples Pavilion in Stanford, Calif.
BROADCAST: TV - Pac-12 Networks. Radio - ESPN 1600 AM
COACHES: Colorado - JR Payne, 1st season (13-10 at CU; 114-123 career). Stanford - Tara VanDerveer, 31st season (848-178; 1,000-229 career).
LEADERS: Colorado - Scoring: G Kennedy Leonard, So., 18.6 ppg; Rebounding: F Haley Smith, Sr., 6.4 rpg; Assists: Leonard, 5.6 apg. Stanford - Scoring: F Erica McCall, Sr., 15.9 ppg; Rebounding: McCall, 8.3 rpg; Assists: G Marta Sniezek, So., 4.3 apg.
NOTABLE: CU is 4-16 all-time against Stanford, including 0-11 since joining the Pac-12. ... Stanford won the first meeting, 84-70, on Jan. 15 in Boulder. Karlie Samuelson had 18 points for Stanford, while Leonard had 22 points and seven assists for the Buffs. ... This game will be a bit of a homecoming for Payne, who came to CU this year from nearby Santa Clara.
Looking at the final statistics from a Colorado women's basketball victory against Utah on Jan. 25, sophomore Makenzie Ellis was bothered by one particular number.
CU head coach JR Payne wasn't real thrilled with it, either.
Although the Buffalos won the game, Ellis had zero rebounds in her 13 minutes — a rare zero for the 6-foot-2 forward, but yet another low number in that category.
"It really, really bothered me, especially because I know that's all effort," Ellis said.
Challenged by her coaches after that game, Ellis' effort has improved dramatically, providing another signal that her game is developing for the Buffs (13-10, 3-9 Pac-12), who will visit No. 8 Stanford (20-4, 10-2) on Friday.
In CU's last three games, Ellis is averaging 6.3 rebounds, including a career-high nine in a victory against Washington State on Feb. 3. She followed that up with one of her best all-around games in a close loss to No. 10 Washington on Sunday, scoring a career-best 18 points and pulling down six rebounds.
"The last couple of games, I had purpose to make sure that that (rebounding) column was not zero again," said Ellis, who averaged 3.4 rebounds in the first 20 games. "I think that's helped not only myself, but the team as well. It just helps us to stay in games and do better."
Ellis, who has started all 23 games this season, is growing up along with the rest of the young Buffs. With her sophomore season winding down, it's clear she's becoming a better all-around player.
In addition to her increased rebounding of late, Ellis' offensive performance against Washington was a welcomed sight to the Buffs.
Against Washington, Ellis didn't just score; she took shots with confidence in crunch time. She scored nine of her points in the fourth quarter, helping CU nearly pull an upset of the Huskies.
"I knew there were things I had the ability to do, but my coaches have been really great in encouraging me to take the shots when I'm open and be the offensive threat," said Ellis, who is averaging 5.8 points this season. "That's really helped this year, having that."
While it was only one game that Ellis showed that aggressiveness and confidence on offense, Payne said that can sometimes be a trigger for a player to keep it going.
"Sometimes players just seeing it inspires them," Payne said. "Seeing it happen I think is a big deal and going a long way with confidence."
Ellis said her confidence has grown since last year, when she averaged 3.1 points and 2.9 rebounds as a true freshmen reserve.
"This year it's been more comfortable," said Ellis, from Booker T. Washington High School in Tulsa, Okla. "I think my confidence has gone up and I'm working on my shot and being able to do more. It's made my role increase a little bit, where last year it was mainly defense and rebounding. Now I can be more of an offensive threat on the floor and I think that's been really awesome."
With Ellis starting to develop her all-around game, the Buffs feel they are improving as they head down the stretch of the season. This weekend will be a difficult trip, however, with games at Stanford and California. Both teams beat CU in Boulder last month, but the Buffs had halftime leads in both games. They hope the finish the deal this time around.
"I'm very excited," Payne said. "I wouldn't be as excited if I didn't know that our team believes that we can play with these guys. It's a good thing. We know we can play with them. They're fantastic teams, but who isn't in our conference? It's a great challenge to go out on the road and steal one or two."
Brian Howell: firstname.lastname@example.org, on Twitter: @BrianHowell33.