CU women's basketball preview: No. 11 Washington
MATCHUP: Colorado Buffaloes (15-12, 4-11 Pac-12) at Washington Huskies (25-4, 13-3)
GAME TIME: Thursday, 9 p.m. MT, at Alaska Airlines Arena in Seattle
BROADCAST: TV - Pac-12 Networks. Radio - ESPN 1600 AM
COACHES: Colorado - JR Payne, 1st season (15-12 at CU; 116-125 career). Washington - Mike Neighbors, 4th season (94-39).
LEADERS: Colorado - Scoring: G Kennedy Leonard, So., 17.6 ppg; Rebounding: F Haley Smith, Sr., 6.5 rpg; Assists: Leonard, 5.9 apg. Washington - Scoring: G Kelsey Plum, Sr., 30.9 ppg; Rebounding: F/C Chantel Osahor, Sr., 14.8 rpg; Assists: Plum, 4.9 apg.
NOTABLE: CU is 8-11 all-time against the Huskies, including 2-5 in Seattle. Washington has won the last eight meetings. ... Washington beat the Buffs, 79-75, in Boulder on Feb. 5. Plum had 28 points, while Leonard and Alexis Robinson both had 19 for CU and Makenzie Ellis added 18. ... The Buffs are 4-4 in their last eight games. They go into the final weekend of the regular season in a four-way tie for seventh place in the Pac-12. They could finish anywhere between seventh and 12th going into next week's Pac-12 Tournament. ... Washington is third in the Pac-12 and guaranteed a first-round bye in next week's conference tournament.
The Colorado women's basketball team doesn't feature any individual players that are exceptional defenders.
The Buffaloes are at the bottom of the Pac-12 in shooting percentage during conference play, and they get outrebounded far too often for head coach JR Payne's liking.
Yet, as the Buffs (15-12, 5-11 Pac-12) head into the final stretch of the season, they are postseason eligible and much more competitive on a nightly basis than many expected because they are relentless pests on defense.
CU leads the Pac-12 in steals and turnover margin and, while the Buffs haven't won a bunch of their conference games, they aren't an easy team to beat.
"I know that those two things are the two things that have allowed us to have some success," said Payne, whose team will take on No. 11 Washington on Thursday in Seattle.
After going 7-23 last year, the Buffs are enjoying success in Payne's first season because they've bought into her defensive philosophy.
Payne knew that, on paper, the Buffs didn't match up well with several teams in the Pac-12, but also knew that they could find success if they played aggressively on defense.
"Playing that way has really helped us to have a lot of effort and be all over the place and kind of confuse teams and get them out of what they're normally used to running and kind of letting us dictate the pace," senior Haley Smith said.
Twice this season, the Buffs have lost to Stanford, which is currently ranked No. 8, but in both games, they had the lead at halftime. They've also played within five points of No. 10 Oregon State and Washington in recent weeks.
"It's definitely been fun," sophomore guard Alexis Robinson said. "We're starting to like the defensive end, because it's making our offense a lot better, it's making our offense go."
Associate head coach Toriano Towns has been CU's defensive guru, but his message has been fairly simple: Stay active and keep your hands high. Doing that has created uncomfortable moments for the opposition.
"That mentality is definitely who we are defensively and who we want to be defensively," Payne said. "Making people uncomfortable, we talk about that a lot.
"We try to speed people up by playing certain angles that force them (into a faster or uncomfortable decision). For us to have any defensive success, we had to be that."
CU is averaging 11.4 steals per game and currently has 307 steals on the year. From 1987-96, the Buffs had 300-plus steals every year, but in the 21 seasons since, this is just the second time they've hit that milestone. The Buffs are pace to have the fifth-best steals per game average in program history.
The Buffs are also on pace to have the third best turnover margin in program history, as they currently sit at plus-6.0 per game. It's been a remarkable turnaround for a team that has committed more turnovers than the opposition in 11 of the previous 12 seasons.
"(Towns) is a really great defensive coach and he's put us in the right position to make those steals and those plays in the games," Robinson said. "It's extremely crucial. That gives us energy that sometimes we might be lacking."
It's also given the Buffs some confidence as they head into the final weekend of the regular season.
"(Recent success) definitely gives us a lot of confidence, and not just the wins, but the close games we're in," Robinson said. "That gives a lot of confidence to know we can play with any team in the Pac."
Brian Howell: email@example.com, on Twitter: @BrianHowell33.