CU women's basketball preview: Washington
MATCHUP: Washington Huskies (8-18, 1-13 Pac-12) at Colorado Buffaloes (12-14, 2-13 Pac-12)
GAME TIME: Sunday, 1 p.m. MT, at CU Events Center
BROADCAST: Online — CUBuffs.com/WBB. Radio — KHOW 630 AM
COACHES: Colorado — JR Payne, 3rd season (44-46; 145-159 career). Washington — Jody Wynn, 2nd season (15-41; 152-160 career).
KEY PLAYERS: Colorado — G Quinessa Caylao-Do, Jr., 11.1 ppg, 4.2 rpg; G Lesila Finau, Fr., 3.3 ppg, 2.5 rpg, 1.4 apg; G/F Mya Hollingshed, So., 11.2 ppg, 6.7 rpg; G Kennedy Leonard, Sr., 13.4 ppg, 4.5 rpg, 7.1 apg; G Alexis Robinson, Sr., 12.8 ppg, 2.6 rpg; F Peanut Tuitele, Fr., 7.4 ppg, 5.4 rpg. Washington — F Mai-Loni Henson, Jr., 4.8 ppg, 3.9 rpg; G Jenna Moser, Sr., 5.3 ppg, 2.5 rpg; G Amber Melgoza, Jr., 18.2 ppg, 4.3 rpg, 2.8 apg; G Missy Peterson, So., 8.5 ppg, 3.7 rpg, 2.2 apg; F Darcy Rees, Fr., 6.8 ppg, 3.7 rpg
NOTABLE: The Buffs are coming off a 72-61 win against Washington State on Friday. Tuitele had a season-high 23 points, while Caylao-Do added 20. ... Friday's victory was win No. 800 in CU history (800-558). ... CU is seeking its first weekend sweep since the Washington schools came to Boulder from Feb. 16-18, 2018. ... Washington has lost 10 in a row since defeating the Buffs on, 68-58, in Seattle on Jan. 11. That was the Buffs' first game without Leonard. The Huskies were routed at Utah on Friday, 88-56. ... Washington leads the all-time series, 13-10. ... The Buffs will honor their two seniors, Leonard and Robinson, before the game. ... Leonard (1,597 career points) needs three points to pass Bridget Turner for eighth on the CU career scoring list and needs 25 points to pass Erin Scholz for seventh.
Before she ever played a game for the Colorado women's basketball team, Kennedy Leonard came in with a truckload of confidence and eyes on leading the Buffaloes back to their glory days.
"No, we're not going to lose," she said in the summer of 2015. "I don't lose a lot."
Now a senior, Leonard's career is winding down and she is preparing for her final game at the CU Events Center on Sunday. The program's glory days seem just as distant as they did when she arrived, but the 5-foot-8 point guard from Southlake, Texas, will leave CU among the all-time leaders in several statistical categories and with a much different perspective than she had as an 18-year-old.
"You learn that not everything goes as you want it to go and there's a bigger plan," Leonard said before a recent practice at the CEC. "That's what's going to happen and you have to just roll with the punches. If you can get through the adversity and the tough times, you can definitely make it through the nice and easy times."
As a freshman, Leonard didn't foresee the turbulence that would take place throughout her time with the Buffaloes, including a coaching change, heavy roster turnover, an injury that has cost her a third of her senior season and an ongoing struggle to win.
CU (12-14, 2-13 Pac-12) enters Sunday's game against Washington (8-18, 1-13) with a slim chance of reaching the postseason. During Leonard's career, the Buffs have a 51-69 record and one postseason appearance — advancing to the Women's NIT third round in 2017. It's that lack of team success that bothers Leonard the most as she reflects on her career.
"I'll never know what it's like to get to an NCAA Tournament, unless we win the Pac-12 Tournament (in March), but at the same time I'll know what it's like to fight adversity and go through a ton of things and come out on top or better because of it," she said. "If that's what I get from this, that's what I get. You take what you get and you just keep rolling."
Recruited by former head coach Linda Lappe, Leonard was part of a 2015 class that included Alexis Robinson, Monica Burich and Makenzie Ellis. It was regarded as Lappe's best recruiting class.
When Leonard signed, the Buffs were only two years removed from a 2013 NCAA Tournament appearance — their first in nine years. In 2015-16, Leonard earned Pac-12 all-freshman honors, but the Buffs went a disastrous 7-23 and Lappe was fired.
"I'd never lost that much," said Leonard, who had led Southlake Carroll High School to a 26-7 record in her senior year.
JR Payne was hired to replace Lappe and helped the Buffs squeak into the Women's NIT during Leonard's sophomore year. They finished 17-16 and Leonard earned first-team All-Pac-12 honors. Since that season, however, the roster has gone through heavy changes.
CU lost eight of 13 players from the 2016-17 team, including Burich and Ellis, who transferred. With eight new teammates last year, Leonard earned first-team all-conference honors again, but and the Buffs finished 15-16 and missed out on the postseason.
This year, Leonard has six new teammates, and with her injury taking her out of the lineup for 10 games, the Buffs have struggled to win.
"We all expected a much better year and I think we would have gotten that had a ton of things not happened," Leonard said. "(Not winning over the years) has been incredibly tough — the coaching change and then J coming in and you're still not winning games. You learn from it."
Leonard has had 27 different teammates during her career, but she has set the example and been a rock for Payne and her staff.
"A tremendous amount of stability (from Leonard), and a tremendous amount of loyalty," Payne said. "I think Kennedy is a tremendous example of what it takes to be successful as a basketball player. I've said many times she's the hardest working kid I've ever coached from a training standpoint."
Leonard's tireless work shows on the court, but also in the CU record book. Earlier this season, she became the program's all-time leader in assists and currently sits at 642. She's currently ninth in career points (1,597) and needs 48 to climb all the way to sixth. She's also ninth in steals (231) with a chance to reach the top five, and top nine in 3-pointers and free throws.
The assist record brings Leonard a measure of pride, she said, "Because it's not just about yourself. It's about everybody else. They have to make those shots, they have to be in the positions to make those plays. I think it's kind of cool and fitting I was able to get that record."
Ranking among the best statistically is the product of Leonard's work. Until recently, it was difficult to get Leonard out of the gym. She and Payne have joked for years that neither one of them takes a day off. A foot injury in early January forced Leonard to take days off, though. All of a sudden, she had to find other ways to occupy her time, and that included spending more time with her sister in Denver, friends and her beloved dog.
"If anything, the injury has taught me that I have to be something other than just basketball," she said. "It's taught me that there's more to life and I think that's a good thing, because as you go on in your career, basketball becomes less important and life becomes more important. This year especially I've learned that when adversity hits, you can't let it take you down. It's taught me more life lessons than anything else."
For now, though, basketball is still important. Leonard wants to play well and win as much as possible down the stretch with the Buffs, and she's got a potential pro career ahead of her. WNBA scouts have their eyes on her ahead of the draft in April.
"It's the hardest league in the world to make and I think that if I was able to make that league or get drafted, that would be really cool," she said.
During the next few weeks, however, Leonard is focused on the Buffs - making the most of her final moments in a CU uniform and enjoying the relationships she has developed in Boulder.
"I want to remember (my career) in as many good ways as I can," she said. "It hasn't been the easiest road; there's been tough times, hard times, but there's also been good times."