CU women’s basketball preview: Utah
MATCHUP: Colorado Buffaloes (11-10, 2-8 Pac-12) at Utah Utes (14-7, 5-5)
GAME TIME: Thursday, 7 p.m. MT, at the Huntsman Center in Salt Lake City.
BROADCAST: TV — Pac-12 Network. Radio — KHOW 630 AM
COACHES: Colorado — JR Payne, 2nd season (28-26 at CU; 129-139 career). Utah – Lynne Roberts, 3rd season (48-37; 269-212 career).
LEADERS: Colorado — Scoring: G Kennedy Leonard, Jr., 14.6 ppg; Rebounding: F Annika Jank, Fr., 7.5 rpg; Assists: Leonard, Jr., 6.6 apg. Utah — Scoring: F Megan Huff, Jr., 13.9 ppg; Rebounds: Huff, 8.0 rpg; Assists: G Erika Bean, Jr., 5.0 apg
NOTABLE: This is the first of two games this week between the two, as the Utes will be in Boulder on Sunday for a Noon tip. … The all-time series is tied at 15-15, with CU having a 3-10 record in Salt Lake City. … The Buffs have lost six in a row, their longest losing streak since the 2015-16 season. … Both teams were swept by the Oregon schools last weekend. … Leonard needs 13 points to pass former teammate Jamee Swan for 19th on CU’s all-time scoring and needs 25 to pass Crystal Ford for 18th. … CU will once again play without forward Janea Bunn (personal reasons) and center Jaimie Curtis (injured). Guard Mathilde Diop (concussion) is questionable.
It’s easy to focus on wins and losses and judge a team based solely on those results.
Colorado women’s basketball coach JR Payne has had to take a broader view of her team this season, however.
Payne and the Buffaloes (11-10, 2-8 Pac-12) take a six-game losing streak into Thursday’s date with Utah (14-7, 5-5) in Salt Lake City. It’s a streak that looks ugly on the schedule, but the Buffs feel they’re actually taking a bit of momentum into the weekend set with the Utes, who will be in Boulder on Sunday.
“This past weekend we played some of the best basketball we’ve played this year,” Payne said. “Different people have shown that they can contribute.”
Yes, last weekend included a 19-point loss to Oregon and a 15-point loss to Oregon State, but those are two of the top 20 teams in the country and for large stretches of those games, the Buffs went toe-to-toe with both.
“The important thing is, it’s perspective,” Payne said. “It’s understanding where we are as a ball club, where our youth is, how many veterans we have playing or not playing.”
The reality for the Buffs is that they aren’t a team that’s built to win consistently in the Pac-12 this year.
CU is just two years removed from a 7-23 season that led to a coaching change that brought Payne to Boulder. Last year, she led them to a resurgent 17-16 campaign and run to the Women’s NIT Sweet 16.
The majority of last year’s team is gone, however, with four players graduating and four others choosing to leave the program.
With eight new players, the Buffs are very much a work in progress and it often shows, with plenty of growing pains coming throughout this season.
Because of that, Payne finds joy in every sign of progress, whether it’s certain players stepping up in certain games, or watching the team execute something that was talked about in practice.
Just two weeks ago, the Buffs were a turnover machine, ranking 290th nationally with 18.5 per game. Payne and her staff have made some changes to fix that and over the past four games, they are averaging just 12 per game. Twice in the past four games, the Buffs have matched their season low of 10 turnovers.
“We really kind of developed an understanding as players and coaches, that yes we want to play fast, but not at the expense of turning the ball over,” Payne said.
The desire to play fast in transition was leading to plenty of sloppy, unforced turnovers. In the past two weeks, the Buffs have made a conscious effort to take a moment to settle down after collecting a rebound before heading down the court.
“We ask them to do it and now they’re actually doing it,” Payne said. “We’re playing a little bit more in the half court than we were early in the season. We’re moving the ball better. We’re taking care of the ball more efficiently.”
Unfortunately for the Buffs, other areas – including shooting, rebounding and defense – aren’t as efficient right now. For the Buffs to turn the page and end their losing streak, Payne is most focused on the defense.
“We’re playing teams with a bunch of great shooters, but we’re giving up too many open looks, and depending on which quarter or which half of the game, we’re getting out-rebounded still,” she said. “We’re competing on the glass for a half or three quarters. We have to be able to compete on the glass for all four quarters.”
Those are the steps Payne hopes will come next for the Buffs. And, while she tries to focus on her team’s improvement, rather than their record, she’d love to add a few more to the win column.
“This weekend is another opportunity to do that,” she said. “Of course we want to win. Every time we play is an opportunity to get out of that losing column and get back into the win column.”