Through a month of non-conference play, Linda Lappe was getting an indication here and an inkling there that her Colorado women's basketball team was developing resiliency and resolve.
Proof came last weekend at Illinois when the Buffaloes didn't shoot particularly well (45.6 percent from the field), hit one of 11 three-point attempts (9.1 percent), treated the ball as if it were covered with thorns (27 turnovers) and were whistled for 21 fouls.
For all those reasons, road games can turn ugly. But what appears to be developing into a decent CU basketball team for Lappe made ugly work to its advantage. The Buffs won 69-62, staying unbeaten (6-0) and on track as Wednesday night's game against archrival Colorado State approaches.
Starting at 5:50 p.m., the women's game will be the opener of a Buffs women's/men's doubleheader against the Rams at the Coors Events Center. The men's game is scheduled to begin about 8:30 p.m.
At Illinois, Lappe said she saw a CU team that stepped off the airplane believing it was going to win: "I never felt our confidence wavered at any point. We came into Illinois thinking we were going to win and we didn't let anything affect that. I liked how we battled against a pretty good BCS school on its homecourt (and) how we responded to some adversity through the game."
Plus, it helped that the Buffs continued to get strong play from redshirt freshman forward Arielle Roberson. At her current pace, Roberson might have the Pac-12 Conference freshman of the year award tucked away by the start of league play. In the season's first four weeks, Roberson is a three-time winner of the league's Freshman of the Week award.
Her output at Illinois included a career-high 25 points, highlighted by a three-pointer (CU's lone trey of the game) in the final minute that gave the Buffs a 66-60 lead in their comeback win.
The road victory, said Roberson, "was great for us to build on . . . we stayed focused on when calls were not going the right way and we didn't let that affect us. You expect some of that on the road, but you have to be tough and play through it. We did a really good job of that; we turned things around and stayed together.
"That was the challenging part, but I think that's why we ended up winning. We were able to push all that aside and focus."
Lappe had envisioned Roberson being a solid addition this season, but she might not have expected what Roberson has produced. "She's started off very strong (18.5 average)," Lappe said. "She did not enjoy sitting out last year (after hip surgery), but it helped her immensely. She's gotten a year wiser and hungrier. She's excited to be on the floor and she feels very fortunate to be on the floor. A lot of times until you get injured and get that taken away you don't feel that hunger."
Throughout her unexpected season off and her long winter as a spectator, Roberson said she stayed engaged and excited: "My excitement over basketball never really left . . . I was still pumped last year like I was going to play."
Now, she has an outlet for her energy and "it's kind of a little different because I don't have to bottle everything up like I did last year," she said. "It's a blessing. I've played most of my life and I'm still excited every time I play."
And her teammates like this year's role much better than last year's.
"She gives us so much," sophomore forward Jen Reese said. "It's so good to have her back finally. She makes shots on the offensive end, she passes the ball, makes good reads . . . on defense she's usually on a key player, making stops. She's just an all-around good player."
A more confident Reese has done her part as well. She scored 15 at Illinois and is averaging 10.0 points and 6.0 rebounds. "I just think my overall game has gotten better," Reese said.
A big difference this season is the Buffs not having to count on senior guard Chucky Jeffery for the majority of their points, rebounds, etc. Nonetheless, Jeffery has hardly disappeared. In scoring, she trails Roberson at 11.8 points a game but is the team's leader in rebounding (7.0), assists (19) and steals (15).
But thus far, CU's strength has been its inside play, with Roberson and Reese working the paint and Jeffery and the guards driving to the rim. Lappe expects CSU "to pack the paint." Added Roberson: "I expect they would try and play better post defense on us, because as a post group we're doing really well."
Lappe wants the Buffs' rebounding to improve (they have a plus-12 advantage), their turnovers to decrease (17 a game) and their perimeter shooting to improve (21-of-77 from beyond the arc). Plus, she's looking for her players to continue to develop better court awareness.
"A big part of our offense is understanding what's open, when players need the ball and how to get the ball to them," Lappe said. "We've gotten better with our post passing, but we have to improve reading the defense and really seeing the court better overall."
CSU (2-4) comes to Boulder with a new coach that Lappe and her team were introduced to last March. Ryun Williams was coaching South Dakota when CU traveled to Vermillion for the WNIT. The Buffs won, 64-55, and although CSU hasn't yet picked up on all of Williams' court philosophies, Lappe sees development.
"Anytime a team has a new coach, there's a learning period," she said. "They're still trying to understand what his system is, but at any point they could get it. I feel like they keep getting better every week. You don't quite know exactly what you're going to face."
That might be true from a strategy standpoint, but the Buffs know what to expect from the intensity angle. Said Lappe: "It's an interesting game because it is a rivalry. It doesn't matter what the records are at that point, it's a rivalry game . . . they'll be ready to play, we'll be ready to play. We're always excited to play CSU; it'll be a good game."