BOULDER – If Sunday afternoon was a tune-up for Pac-12 Conference play, the No. 12 Colorado women’s team likely left the Coors Events Center knowing the fine-tuning isn’t finished.
But putting into practice what they had emphasized recently in practice, the Buffaloes showed if they continue to grind they can succeed. Applying the brakes to stubborn Southern Utah Sunday in the last 8 minutes, the Buffs finally put away the Thunderbirds 75-59 and now can turn their full attention to the Pac-12.
CU opens conference play on Friday at Southern California, then plays at UCLA next Sunday. The Buffs’ Pac-12 home opener is Friday, Jan. 10 against No. 23 Cal, with No. 4 Stanford visiting on Sunday, Jan. 12. The Pac-12 features four ranked (AP) teams, with Arizona State at No. 25.
Although CU did enough against Southern Utah to claim its 10th non-conference win (10-1), the Buffs often had difficulty getting in synch offensively and let a 14-point second half lead dwindle to two with 8:09 to play.
But that was as close as the Thunderbirds (7-3) would get. After Carli Moreland hit a pair of free throws to bring Southern Utah to 54-52, the Buffs launched a 19-2 run to take a 19-point lead (73-54) with 1:24 remaining.
Outscored 21-7 over the final 8:09, the T-Birds were toast.
“Overall, I liked how we responded to the last three days of practice,” CU coach Linda Lappe said, noting the Buffs had focused on rebounding, tighter defense and setting screens. “I saw all three things improve.”
Most apparent, according to guard Jasmine Sborov, was the defensive factor: “To be honest, it didn’t really feel like the score was that close leading up to the two-point deficit . . . we looked at scoreboard and we were like, ‘All right, we need to get down, get some stops and just extend our lead.’ I think that’s one negative thing with this game – we were up and then we were down and we were up and we let them get closer. We didn’t step on their throats and just keep going.”
Not until they needed to, anyway. During the decisive 8-minute surge, Arielle Roberson scored seven of her team-best 18 points while Ashley Wilson, who finished with career highs in points (14) and assists (5), contributed four points. Roberson added 12 rebounds for her fourth double-double in five games and seventh of her career.
Wilson’s performance came in 21 minutes off the bench. “That’s kind of my role – to provide energy off of the bench,” she said. “It just happened; it’s a credit to my teammates, they gave me energy.”
Down by 12 points at halftime, the Thunderbirds crept to within four before the Buffs answered with a 12-2 run to take what appeared to be a comfortable 50-36 lead. Not so. The visitors kept competing, climbing back to within 54-52 before CU delivered its final answer.
“We relaxed instead of keeping our foot on the gas,” Wilson said. “They play hard (but) we responded every single time; it shows what kind of team we have.”
Lappe agreed: “They’re a feisty group, well-coached and have lot of energy . . . at times we didn’t look very good, didn’t get stops and our offensive sputtered. Southern Utah made us play a half-court game, made us become stagnant (offensively) at times.”
But, noted Lappe, compensating with solid defense down the stretch was good for the Buffs with the Pac-12 schedule looming: “In terms of playing defense and unleashing our aggressiveness, we needed to do that against an opponent.”
Desiree Jackson led Southern Utah with 21 points and was her team’s only player in double figures.
“Slow start” doesn’t come close to describing what the Buffs overcame to eventually pull away and take a 36-24 halftime lead. Just under 9 minutes into the first half, CU had one more turnover (five) than baskets (four) but still led 10-7.
But after Moreland, a 6-1 senior forward from Broomfield, tied the score at 13-13 on a 3-pointer, CU made its move. Over the next 6 minutes, the Buffs outscored the Thunderbirds 17-6 to take their first double-digit advantage (30-19) on a basket by Ashley Wilson.
Southern Utah rallied briefly, closing to within six points (30-24) before CU used a 6-0 run – four free throws by Roberson, a layup by Jamee Swan, who made her second career start – to establish its 12-point halftime advantage. But the T-Birds quickly cut into that, forced the Buffs to make a run, then the whole process was repeated.
Neither team shot impressively from the field – CU checked in at 37.9 percent, Southern Utah at 34.0 – and between them the Buffs and Thunderbirds committed 45 turnovers (CU 21, Southern Utah 24). And long-range accuracy was lacking: the teams were a combined 2-of-26 from beyond the arc, with each getting one trey in 13 attempts. The Buffs also clanked 12 free throws, giving them 25 misses in their last two games – which Lappe conceded concerns her.
Still, noted Wilson, “We’re happy with this win. There were a lot of different things we worked on the last three practices that definitely showed up in the game. We wanted to ramp up our defense a whole lot more going into Pac-12 because we know there are a lot of good teams that are going to come after us . . . so, it was a great win.”
CU redshirt freshman Lauren Huggins did not dress; she is recuperating from a lower leg injury and is hopeful of returning for the Pac-12 opener. In Huggins’ absence, freshman Desiree Harris saw her first playing time of the season, getting 5 minutes.