Cliff Grassmick / Staff Photographer
Jeremy Papasso / Staff Photographer
Fast starts have never been a problem for the Colorado women’s basketball team under the direction of head coach JR Payne.
The third-year coach of the Buffaloes has her team at 10-1 with Pac-12 play on the horizon. The Buffs host Utah (11-0) in the conference opener Sunday at CU Events Center.
For Payne, this is nothing new. The Buffs went 10-1 in nonconference play her first season and then 9-2 a year ago.
The next step for Payne and the Buffs is to win the games that matter. They are 10-26 in Pac-12 games during her tenure (5-13 each season).
This team might be more prepared for conference play than Payne’s first two, however.
“We’re coming in playing good basketball,” she said after a rout of Samford on Dec. 20. “I would hate to have a 10-1 record and come in limping into conference play and not feel really good about how we’re playing.”
CU, which has won four in a row, is slotted at No. 44 in the women’s basketball RPI rankings, which Payne said, “tells you that we’ve played really good teams in our preseason.”
The only loss came at Miami, which is No. 20 in RPI, and the Buffs defeated No. 41 North Carolina.
“We have to keep getting better and our opponents are going to keep getting better, as are we, so we’re excited for Pac-12,” Payne said.
More so than the quality of opponents, CU’s nonconference schedule was vital for the growth of a roster that is a mix of youth and veterans.
Seniors Kennedy Leonard and Alexis Robinson have joined with juniors Quinessa Caylao-Do and Mathilde Diop to bring composure to the court. Caylao-Do, in particular, is enjoying the best season of her career to this point.
Along with veterans, the Buffs are leaning more and more on their youth. Freshman Peanut Tuitele has emerged as a weapon in the paint, while sophomore Mya Hollingshed is enjoying a breakout season.
Sophomore Annika Jank and freshmen Emma Clarke, Cameron Swartz and Lesila Finau have had their moments, as well.
“We have had and continue to have really high expectations for this freshman class,” Payne said.
The play of the veterans and the emergence of the youth is “showing really good depth for our team and really good balance,” Payne said.
Now, the Buffs have to prove they can get the job done against Pac-12 foes, and there is no time to waste with the first three conference games at home.
“We have a really great opportunity ahead of us in having our first three Pac-12 games at home and that’s an opportunity that we cannot squander,” Payne said. “We’ve got to stay sharp, we’ve got stay focused and dialed in on how we want to play and what we want to do.”