Colorado doubles wins from last season, youth and balance make Buffs a Pac-12 team on the rise

BERKELEY, Calif. (feb. 12, 2017) -- Colorado celebrates after beating Cal.
BERKELEY, Calif. (Feb. 12, 2017) — Colorado celebrates after beating Cal.

Pac-12 Standings as of 2/15/17

Teams Conf Overall
 WASHINGTON 12-2 24-3
 OREGON STATE 12-2 23-3
 STANFORD 12-2 22-4
 UCLA 9-5 18-7
 OREGON 7-7 17-9
 CALIFORNIA 5-9 17-9
 UTAH 4-10 15-10
 COLORADO 4-10 14-11
 USC 4-10 13-12
 ARIZONA 3-11 12-13

With four games left in the regular season, Colorado (14-11, 4-10 Pac-12) may not be near the top of the standings in the Pac-12 but that does not mean that the Buffs are down and out. In fact, they have the respect of the best teams in the conference as a program with the talent and execution to take down any team in the league at any given time. Such is the nature of the toughest conference in the nation with three programs in a logjam for first place.

As February rolls on and teams continue to jockey for position in the conference standings, it seems not a week goes by that a ranked team does not take a hit in the Pac-12.

In their last road trip, the Buffs put Stanford on notice, losing a hard-fought contest that was topsy-turvy affair until the end of the third quarter. The Buffs led at the half and put the Cardinal, a team that has been nationally ranked all season, on its heels.

“Colorado played us really tough,” said Stanford head coach Tara VanDerveer postgame. The Buffs limited their opponent to just 4-of-15 field goals and nine points in the first quarter, a season low of points in the first ten minutes for the Cardinal.

“We struggled a bit offensively,” admitted VanDerveer after facing Colorado’s tough defense.

Undaunted by the loss, the Buffs came out swinging two days later across the Bay in Berkeley to take out California, a talented squad that is also a dangerous underdog in the Pac-12. While Cal entered the game with a better record than Colorado, along with a recent win over ranked UCLA, Bears head coach Lindsay Gottlieb knew the matchup against the Buffs would be extremely tough.

“They have some of the best guards in the country,” said Gottlieb about the starting guards for Colorado, sophomores Kennedy Leonard and Alexis Robinson.

The Buffs started with a 7-0 run versus Cal and led wire-to-wire. While the Colorado outscored the Bears 24-16 in the first period, Cal fought back to perform better on offense in the second and third quarters but the effort was not enough to overcome the deficit. Colorado entered the final quarter with a three-point lead and held off Cal to earn a 64-59 victory.

“I almost burst into tears when the buzzer sounded,” said Buffs head coach JR Payne about her squad’s ability to pull off a win on the road against a talented team.

“I’m pretty much always proud of our effort,” she continued. “Our team plays hard no matter what. I’m just so happy for them. We’ve been in so many of these games where we’re up at halftime and they close the gap and our demeanor changes and we hang our heads and we can’t finish it. And so, I’m just really proud of our effort down the stretch, our execution down the stretch.”

Colorado’s strengths in the game included balanced scoring as eight players earned points in the game to make up for the fact that the Buffs leading scorer Kennedy Leonard was held scoreless.

In the game against Stanford, Colorado sophomore forward Makenzie Ellis and reserve sophomore guard Ariana Freeman led the team in scoring and rebounds. When the Buffs faced Cal, a different cast of characters was in the mix of leading scorers. Junior center Zoe Correal, a native of San Francisco, had a double-double of 16 points and 15 rebounds in front of friends and family who came to see her play. Robinson contributed 15 points and six assists. Leonard was limited to nine points, well below her season average of 18.1 points per contest coming into the game. However, the shots she made came at crucial moments including a three-pointer with 38 seconds left in the fourth quarter that killed Cal’s late game momentum after a run that got the Bears within two.

“The really neat thing about this game is that so many people did so many great things,” said Payne about the balance. “Correal’s numbers obviously were just amazing. Lexi hit big threes with foul trouble, and Kennedy’s three and free throws down the stretch. [It was] just a tremendous effort and discipline down the stretch.”

Four out of five of Colorado’s starters are either sophomores or juniors. The youth of the team coupled with a collection of close games against ranked opponents this season signals a bright future for the Buffs. The team has doubled the number of games it won last season. The Buffs started the season 10-0 and nearly went undefeated in non-conference play before a loss in late December to Wyoming, the second-place team in the Mountain West conference.

Quick turnarounds from season-to-season are not uncommon for Payne, in her first year as head coach of the Colorado. In her previous two head coaching jobs at Southern Utah and Santa Clara, she managed to take those teams from winning less than 10 games a season to averaging 23.0 wins per season by the time she left.

Pac-12 analyst Cindy Brunson saw the promise of Colorado a couple of weeks ago when the Buffs battled Washington and Washington State in Boulder and calls them “a team on the rise.”

“Leonard and Robinson can defend and fill it up and if Mackenzie Ellis produces watch out. I walked away from Colorado thinking that the Buffaloes reminded me a lot of USC in 2014.” Southern California shocked everyone that year by coming into the Pac-12 tournament unranked and seeded No. 5 to beat Oregon State in the title game after taking down Stanford in the semifinals.

“They’re more than capable of shortening the stay in Seattle for a team or two,” Brunson continued, “and could mess around and win the whole darn thing because there’s no pressure on them.”

The Buffs have a chance to shake things up in the league standings when they host Oregon State and Oregon during upcoming weekend. Colorado finishes up the regular season on the road facing Washington and Washington State. It will not be a surprise to anyone in the Pac-12 if they manage to come away with an upset against a ranked team on the road.

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