CU women’s basketball: Through struggles, Lappe sees better days ahead

Jeremy Papasso / Staff Photographer
Coach Linda Lappe’s Colorado women’s basketball team has lost nine games in a row heading into Friday’s home matchup against UCLA.

CU women’s basketball preview: No. 15 UCLA

MATCHUP: No. 15 UCLA Bruins (14-5, 6-2 Pac-12) at Colorado Buffaloes (5-14, 0-8).

GAME TIME: Friday, 7 p.m. at Coors Events Center in Boulder.

BROADCAST: Radio — KKZN (760 AM).

COACHES: Colorado — Linda Lappe, sixth year (103-82; 153-118 career); UCLA — Cori Close, fifth year (86-65).

LEADERS: Colorado — Scoring: F Jamee Swan, Sr., 13.1 ppg; Rebounding: Swan, 7.5 rpg; Assists: G Kennedy Leonard, Fr., 4.7 apg. UCLA —Scoring: G Jordin Canada, So., 17.1 ppg; Rebounding: F Monique Billings, So., 8.1 rpg; Assists: Canada, 6.3 apg.

NOTABLE: CU is looking to snap a nine-game losing streak. … CU is 1-22 in its last 23 games against ranked opponents. … The Buffs are 5-6 all-time against UCLA and got swept by the Bruins in the two meetings last season. … Dealing with soreness in her back, Swan has connected on just 20 percent (10 of 50) of her shots the past four games. … UCLA has won three games in a row.

Through the dark cloud that hangs over the Colorado women’s basketball program these days, head coach Linda Lappe continues to show up to work every day with a smile as she searches for a little bit of light.

“It’s about growing and it’s about putting all of your energy and enthusiasm into these players and these kids and this team,” Lappe said. “That way you try not to focus on anything other than what you do every single day. I owe it to these players to give my best every single day.”

Remaining positive hasn’t always been easy as the Buffaloes (5-14, 0-8 Pac-12) continue to pile up losses. They will carry a nine-game losing streak into Friday’s matchup with No. 15 UCLA at Coors Events Center.

“It’s hard to not see the results, when you see some good results in practice, you see players continuing to get better and the team continuing to get better,” Lappe said.

This may not be rock bottom for the Buffs, but it sure has been a long fall from where they were just three years ago.

During the 2012-13 season, Lappe led the Buffs to a 25-7 record and the 13th NCAA tournament appearance in program history. Star point guard Chucky Jeffery, a first-team All-Pac-12 performer, guided the Buffs to that spectacular season.

Despite Jeffery’s graduation after the season, Lappe and the Buffs believed that was simply a step on their way back to the NCAA elite. They started the next season at 9-0 and reached No. 11 in the Associated Press rankings in mid-December 2013.

Since then, they are 30-46, including 12-32 in Pac-12 play.

“I think we were hungry my freshman year, and then we kind of expected everything to come to us and we didn’t work hard for it,” said CU senior Jamee Swan, who was a reserve on the NCAA tournament team three years ago. “Our work ethic dropped down from then.”

For Lappe, who helped the Buffs reached the NCAA tournament three times (2001-03) as player, the failure to continue the upward climb has been frustrating.

“We wanted to be able to continue,” she said. “Once you start going up, you don’t want anything else. You get a taste of that and you remember how great that taste is and the things that it takes to get back to that point.

“I think we missed an opportunity last year, with a pretty veteran team, to do some really special things. Even more so than this year, I think last year was a little bit of a disappointment.”

This year, the Buffs can at least point to their youth, which can be an excuse for the struggles, but also a sign of good things to come. True freshmen Kennedy Leonard and Alexis Robinson have become regular starters and their classmate, Makenzie Ellis, is a top reserve.

“With the amount of minutes that our freshmen are playing, the amount of experience they are getting, it’s tremendous,” Lappe said. “Most freshmen don’t have the opportunity to get that experience.”

A pair of redshirts give the Buffs hope for the future, too.

True freshman Monica Burich is out for the season with a torn ACL, but Swan believes Burich has potential for greatness.

Sophomore Ariana Freeman is sitting out this season after transferring from Louisville. The Buffs are sorely missing her maturity and competitive fire on the court, not to mention her talent. But while they miss it this year, they get it for the next three years.

“I think Ariana will bring a level of intensity that our team is not quite at yet,” Swan said.

So, as the Buffs sputter through this season, there is reason for hope. The question is whether Lappe will be around to see the better days.

This is the third year in a row Lappe’s Buffs have regressed. The two best players she’s had during her six-year tenure — Jeffery and Brittany Spears — were recruited by her predecessor, Kathy McConnell-Miller.

The most decorated player Lappe has recruited (Arielle Roberson) left the program to finish her career at West Virginia.

While the Buffs like the potential of their young players, in three short years, Lappe has gone from the NCAA tournament to unable to compete in the Pac-12. The Buffs have an RPI ranking of 171, 85 spots below anyone else from the conference.

Eleventh-place California beat the Buffs by 31 but is 0-7 against everybody else. Tenth-place Arizona defeated the Buffs, too. Oregon and Washington State – both in the bottom half of the standings – won relatively easily in Boulder.

The future may be bright in Boulder, but with at least 11 games to play, Lappe’s job may depend on her team showing tangible signs of improvement before this season comes to a close. She is confident they can do just that.

“No matter what the win-loss record is, we still have a ton of opportunity to maximize this team’s potential,” Lappe said.

Brian Howell:, on Twitter: @BrianHowell33.