BOULDER – Given her team’s penchant for forced and unforced errors in its two previous WNIT wins, Linda Lappe’s early scouting report on Texas-El Paso yielded what could be a chilling (or at the very least disturbing) conclusion.
“They play really hard . . . they want to cause chaos on the floor at times,” Lappe said. “And they like to get out and run. They’re all about up-tempo and trying to create turnovers and trying to get their offense going through their defense.
That might be as much as you need to know about the third-round WNIT matchup between Lappe’s Colorado women’s basketball team and UTEP. If the Buffs can avoid a breakdown due to turnovers – becoming El Loco in El Paso – and contain Miners’ forward Kayla Thornton, their chances of playing through March rise considerably.
In WNIT wins against Arkansas State (74-64) and Saint Mary’s (76-64), the Miners took advantage of 17 and 16 turnovers, respectively, by their opponents. On the flip side, in its first two WNIT wins against TCU (78-71) and Southern Utah (79-68), CU committed 23 and 24 turnovers, respectively.
And that pair of W’s was earned in the Coors Events Center, which undoubtedly was far more hospitable than UTEP’s Don Haskins Center figures to be on Friday night (7 p.m. MDT).
Understandably, Lappe is troubled by the turnovers. The Buffs (19-14) averaged 16.3 a game during the regular season, so their 23.5 average in two WNIT games represents a significant increase at a time in the season when miscues and general sloppiness should be trending downward.
Lappe liked her team’s energy and intensity in both postseason wins, but adds, “The thing I didn’t like was that we had way too many turnovers . . . against UTEP that would really kill us; they convert those into points going the other direction.”
Some of the Buffs’ turnovers in the CEC resulted from an occasional inability to handle full-court pressure. Guess what? They’re counting on seeing it early from the Miners and, said forward Arielle Roberson, “I can imagine if we don’t break it right away they’ll stay with it. You just have to take care of business.”
“We have to handle the full-court pressure,” Lappe added. “We didn’t see a lot of presses during Pac-12 play. But we had some experience at that the last couple of games; both teams pressed us. That part was good, because I think we got better in the Southern Utah game from the TCU game. I have no doubt we’re going to get better in the UTEP game.”
In Thornton, a 6-1 senior who played at El Paso’s Irvin High School, Lappe said the Miners (26-7, 12-4 Conference USA) have a forward who could have been a standout on any Pac-12 team: “Thornton is a really good player; she’s a Pac-12 player and maybe as good as any forward as we have in our league.”
A three-time All-C-USA selection (second team the past two seasons, first this season), Thornton averaged 20.1 points and 10.2 rebounds in her final season. She will finish her UTEP career as the school record-holder in double-doubles and made field goals, and she currently ranks second in points.
Poll the Buffs on the similarities of the Miners and any Pac-12 teams and the results vary greatly. “They’re just . . . different,” Lappe said. “Their guards are similar maybe to Arizona State’s; they’ve got a good shooter and a couple of kids who can really rebound.”
Roberson answered “not really” when asked if UTEP reminded her of any of CU’s Pac-12 opponents. “But they’re very scrappy – a bunch of hustle players. They can score (they average 77.8 ppg), they’re good in transition and they look to steal (9.8 a game).”
Rachel Hargis’ answer to the same question: “Maybe USC; they’ve got a good balance of guards and post players . . . they’re a pretty tough team.”
Roberson (15 points, 11 rebounds) and Hargis (12 points) were instrumental in CU advancing past Southern Utah. They contributed six of the Buffs’ school-record 14 blocked shots – Roberson had five – against the Thunderbirds, and a repeat of that defensive effort would no doubt be beneficial on Friday night.
“I like a lot of the things we’ve done in the last two games,” Lappe said. But Wednesday’s practice wasn’t representative of the Buffs’ game-night energy against TCU and Southern Utah.
Roberson conceded the Buffs’ mood was consistent with “how it’s been all season . . . some days we’re here, some days we’re not. I think we all know we have to be consistent, be sharp in everything we do. But as far as the page we’re all on, I think we definitely want to win.”
Lappe has no doubt about that, yet more than once this season she’s been puzzled about her team’s eagerness to practice in a way that brings daily and weekly improvement. Though it’s not the postseason tournament they had targeted, the Buffs are among a dwindling number of teams still playing as the calendar changes.
Do they grasp the magnitude?
“I hope so,” Lappe said. If she needed a reality update she got it earlier this week when she put together a practice itinerary for March 26. “Anytime you’re still playing at the end of March . . . what a cool thing that is to have the opportunity to keep playing games, to keep getting better as a team and extend your season.
“It’s really valuable to be able to spend hours and hours a week instead of just two hours a week like we’d be doing in (the off-season), helping our players get better with their skills and helping the team get better as a whole.”
The opportunity to keep the season alive isn’t lost on Hargis, and it shouldn’t be. She and the Wilson sisters – Brittany and Ashley – are the Buffs’ only seniors. Friday brings one more game, but there are no guarantees of another.
Said Hargis: “I’m really excited that we’re continuing to play. It’s always fun to prolong the season as long as you can.”