BOULDER – We can say without reservation, with no hesitation and with very little doubt that Colorado women’s basketball is back on the road to respectability under fourth-year coach Linda Lappe.
But there are a couple of brazenly obvious mile markers the Buffaloes have had problems passing in the Pac-12 Conference.
All together now: Cal and Stanford.
Since they left the Big 12 three seasons ago and began competing in the Pac-12, the Buffs are a combined 0-8 in the regular season against the Bears and Cardinal. The record goes to 0-10 when postseason play is factored in; Cal eliminated CU from the 2012 Pac-12 Tournament, Stanford showed CU the exit from last spring’s tourney.
So the Buffs are still looking for a breakthrough weekend against the Pac-12 powers that be – and they’re hopeful of this weekend being it.
No. 19 Cal (10-3, 2-0) visits the Coors Events Center on Friday night, followed by No. 4 Stanford (13-1, 2-0) dropping by Sunday afternoon. The CEC visitors have something in common in the loss column: Both were defeated by No. 1 UConn, with Cal’s other two ‘L’s being to No. 3 Duke and unranked George Washington.
Meanwhile, No. 17 CU (11-2, 1-1) has moved on from last weekend’s surprising conference-opening 55-45 road loss at USC. That revival, said Lappe, occurred two days later in a come-from-behind 61-59 win at UCLA: “I really like how we responded against UCLA. I felt like even from one day, we got the point and did much, much better in fixing all the things that we fell short on against USC.”
The things that needed fixing comprise a short list: (1) stagnant offensive ball movement that didn’t lend itself to multiple players touching the ball, an inside-outside flow and diverse scoring, and (2) corralling key defensive rebounds, loose balls and – a by-product of those – getting key stops.
“It just came down to not making plays,” Lappe said.
Hopefully to boost play making this weekend, Lappe has pointed out to the Buffs that she’s not seeing the same sharp on-court edge, that chip on the shoulder, that was evident for most of last season.
“The edge we want hasn’t been there all year,” she told me a couple of days ago. “We didn’t take USC for granted by any means; we were well prepared and guarded them very well. We just didn’t make plays down the stretch. Usually we feel pretty confident up three with three minutes to go. In that game we couldn’t find any scorers late in the game.
“Any time you score 45 points you’re going to have a tough time winning. Our defense was pretty outstanding. It was a matter of us getting some shots; we forced way too much. A lot of the time we were shooting over bigger defenders rather than kicking it to the open player. It wasn’t necessarily a mindset as much as it was our execution.”
Said Roberson: “I kind of felt we didn’t have a chip on our shoulders . . . I felt like we were just playing. But now that it’s been brought to our attention, yeah, I do feel like we need to be playing like last year. Every day you have to bring your best, and sometimes we don’t bring our best.”
“I think it’s come and gone,” Wilson said. “I don’t think we’ve had it the whole time. I think we had it sometimes against Louisville, but I don’t think we’ve had it all the time and it’s something we definitely need to play with this weekend.”
Preceding CU’s loss at USC was a 69-62 pre-Christmas defeat at No. 7 Louisville, which since has risen to No. 5. That loss might have been easier to explain and digest than the one last weekend. Lappe called it “an aberration, an exception to how we’d been playing.” The ingredients missing in that game weren’t absent in previous wins, and knowing that might make a coach sleep a little better. “It’s just getting back to who we are, what we do,” Lappe said.
If there was a positive takeaway from USC, she pointed to this: “It probably relaxed us a little bit. Our team hasn’t been used to playing with really high expectations. When the seniors came in as freshmen there were no expectations. You win six games in the conference and it’s a great thing. The older they’ve gotten and the more mature our team has gotten and what they’ve gone through, it’s kind of a new mentality to have to play with some expectations.
“That game showed us it’s fun to play with expectations, to be thought of as a really good team. You have to look at that not as a negative thing but as a really fun and positive thing – and use it as that . . . I think the worst way to go into a game is hoping not to lose instead of playing to win. That’s a pretty old adage, but it’s a matter of believing it. I’m not sure in the USC game we were playing to win, more so playing not to lose. We were playing to win against UCLA. That was the biggest difference.”
The Buffs enter this weekend ranked No. 1 in the conference in scoring defense (59.2 ppg) and No. 2 in scoring margin (plus 14.5). The Bears are No. 6 in both categories (64.1, plus 5.9), while the Cardinal is second in scoring defense (59.4) and first in scoring margin (plus 19.1). Stanford’s Chiney Ogwumike also is the Pac-12’s leading scorer (26.6 ppg), and the Cardinal are atop the stat sheet in a handful of other team categories.
But Lappe is more tuned in to Friday night and Cal than Sunday and Stanford. The Bears, she said, are typically physical inside but feature better perimeter shooters this season than in the past. Senior post Gennifer Brandon took a personal leave from the team in November and has not returned, but junior Reshanda Gray is averaging 16.8 points and 7.2 rebounds. And starting guards Afure Jemerigbe, a senior, and Brittany Boyd, a junior, are averaging 23 points between them. (Correction: Brandon returned on Jan. 5 against Oregon, playing 22 minutes and scoring nine points and collecting eight rebounds in 22 minutes in Cal's 101-98 overtime win.)
Lappe and her players are trying to keep this weekend in perspective for the rest of the Pac-12 season – but, yeah, it’s a very large Friday-Sunday in CU women’s hoops.
“It’s definitely big, with two top 25 programs coming in here,” Roberson said. “I think it’s more for us now. We believe in ourselves, we feel like we can do it. We just need to bring that confidence to all of our fans. But in perspective, every weekend in conference is big.”
And big, noted Lappe, should correlate with good times: “This should be a fun weekend. We have to look at it as an opportunity because we only play Cal and Stanford one time this year. While most people feel that should be great, I think our team is a little disappointed . . . we like challenges and playing against good competition because we know it only makes us better. That’s kind of the mindset we have going in – let’s look at it as an opportunity to play two really good teams.”
Beating one or both would be OK, too.