CU women's basketball preview: UNLV
MATCHUP: UNLV Lady Rebels (22-10) at Colorado Buffaloes (15-15)
GAME TIME: Thursday, 7 p.m. MT, at Coors Events Center in Boulder
BROADCAST: TV — None. Online — Pac-12.com. Radio — KVCU 1190 AM
COACHES: Colorado — JR Payne, 1st season (15-15 at CU; 116-128 career). UNLV - Kathy Olivier, 9th season (138-145 at UNLV; 370-353 career)
LEADERS: Colorado — Scoring: G Kennedy Leonard, So., 16.8 ppg; Rebounding: F Haley Smith, Sr., 6.3 rpg; Assists: Leonard, 5.7 apg. UNLV — Scoring: G Dakota Gonzalez, Jr., 13.3 ppg; Rebounding: C Katie Powell, So., 6.9 rpg; Assists: G Brooke Johnson, Jr., 3.3 apg.
NOTABLE: This is the first round of the Women's NIT. ... CU is making its sixth appearance in the WNIT, going 12-5 all-time in this tournament, including 5-0 in the first round. ... UNLV is in the WNIT for the 10th time, going 9-11 overall. ... CU is 0-5 all-time against UNLV (0-3 in Boulder), but has not faced the Lady Rebels since March 18, 1989. ... CU is making its first postseason appearance since 2014, while UNLV is making its first since 2012. ... On Nov. 19, UNLV beat USC, 77-66, for its first win over a Pac-12 team since the 2003-04 season. ... Both teams rely on their guards, but UNLV is a stronger rebounding team, Payne said. "We've got to be able to compete on the glass in order to be successful," she said.
Over the years, athletes in all types of sports have been marked for their potential.
Many never realize what others view as their potential, and at one point Haley Smith wondered if she would fall short, as well.
"I heard that my entire high school career," said Smith, now a senior with the Colorado women's basketball team. "I was always a potential player. Always. It even started to kind of frustrate me and I'm like, 'What do I need to do to get from potential to actually being it?'"
With the end of her college basketball career in sight, Smith is now confident she's leaving with her potential having been reached.
On Thursday night, Smith and the Buffaloes (15-15) will host UNLV (22-10) in the first round of the Women's NIT. It's the first trip to the postseason for CU since Smith's freshman year in 2014, and it's a fitting way to send out a player that has meant so much to this program for four years.
"As a senior, we're just trying to push this thing as long as we can go and I want to get the most out of this season and out of my career, so it's been awesome," Smith said of the opportunity to play in the WNIT.
Head coach JR Payne knew it was a big deal for her team to earn the WNIT bid, but she's seen a particular spark in her senior leader this week.
"I think the opportunity for her to keep playing is really special," Payne said. "She's been really bouncy and light hearted. She's had a really great energy about her in the last several days."
A 6-foot-1 wing, Smith is enjoying arguably her best season as a Buff. Her shooting has been off this year, but she's averaging 10.4 points and a career-high 6.3 rebounds while starting all 30 games.
A four-year starter, Smith has developed into the type of player former CU coach Linda Lappe envisioned when she recruited her out of Skyline High School in Sammamish, Wash.
Smith didn't dominate in high school, and when she first got to CU she wondered if she'd ever develop into a key player for the Buffs.
"There was a lot of frustrating times, especially when I was trying to relearn how to shoot," Smith said of her freshman year. "I would leave the gym feeling really disappointed and uneasy, because I felt like I wasn't where I wanted to be."
At some point during that season, however, Smith went from a struggling, overwhelmed freshman to a regular in the starting lineup.
"I was finally able to make that switch and become it - what people were actually looking for," she said. "It was a lot of time in the gym and it was reworking my shot and just really buying into the amount of hard work and dedication that it takes to be a college basketball player."
Smith has now played in 113 consecutive games for CU, 111 of them as a starter. On Thursday, she'll become just the 15th player in program history to participate in 125 games, and only six players have started more games at CU.
Earlier this season, Smith became the 29th player in program history to top 1,000 career points, and she's only the 15th to have 1,000 points and 600 rebounds.
"I was able to make some significant contributions, which personally I didn't know if that was something I was capable of when I first got here," she said. "I'm really happy with the way things developed for me and just how many people were so supportive and helped me get here."
A team-first player, Smith felt it was an added bonus to receive some personal recognition this year. She recently earned All-Pac-12 and all-defensive team honorable mention.
"I'm definitely pleased in getting some of the accolades I did this year," she said. "That was definitely really big for me. It is nice sometimes to have that little pat on the back."
Even better is the chance to add to her career and play with her teammates for at least one more game, and maybe more.
This spring, Smith is set to graduate with a degree in mechanical engineering and in the fall she plans to head west for graduate school, where she'll focus on biomechanics.
As Smith approaches the end of her time at CU, it's clear she reached her potential in the classroom and on the court.
"I'm definitely pleased with the way things ended, the way I'm leaving the program," she said.