Brooks: It’s Late, But Have Lappe’s Buffs Caught On?
BOULDER – As February surges go in college basketball, this one won’t quicken many pulses outside the locker room of the Colorado women’s team. But within those walls, it’s a sign of hope.
Thus far in the last full month of the regular season, the Buffaloes are 2-1, with those two wins matching the total of a January that saw CU enter the month ranked No. 12 nationally and leave it in salvage mode. A 2-7 January record exposed some of the things a coach might sense about her team but is reluctant to believe.
In Linda Lappe’s case, the list began with her Buffs’ inability to finish games and what she later would term a collective identity loss. After winning a two-point game at UCLA (61-59) in the first week of Pac-12 play, CU lost a two-pointer at home to No. 19 Cal (57-55). Later in the month came another two-point defeat in the Coors Events Center to No. 14 Arizona State (68-66), followed by a three-point loss at Utah (58-55) to close out the month.
But to open February – the month that coaches traditionally target as the time their teams should show the most dramatic improvement – the Buffs have won at home against Utah (61-45) and at Oregon (81-75) in a game that could have tilted either way in the final 2 minutes.
Sandwiched between those ‘W’s was a 75-63 loss at Oregon State, but Lappe isn’t focusing so much on the ‘L.’ How the Buffs finished in Eugene – getting critical stops and not wasting late possessions – were the positive takeaways from the trip to the Pacific Northwest.
“It’s all about consistency,” Lappe said. “I told our team that our last three games we’ve played well, played better, and that our last five or six practices have been what we’ve been looking for. The thing to shoot for now is establishing our identity – and I realize it’s a little late in the season to be doing that.
“But understanding who we need to be is really important. When you have changes in mid-season due to injuries or whatever, you have to fall back on what you know and what you’re good at. For us, that’s defense and rebounding, and I really think we’ve started to understand how important those two things are. The games that we haven’t committed to defense and rebounding, we’ve come out not very happy. Now it’s a matter of being consistent in them.”
If the Buffs are to reach at least midrange in the Pac-12 standings prior to the postseason tournament in Seattle (March 6-9), this weekend would be a fine time to start. Including Friday’s game against Washington (6:30 p.m., Pac-12 Networks), CU finishes the regular season with four of its last six games at the CEC.
Washington State visits Sunday (1 p.m., Pac-12 Networks), with UCLA and USC coming to Boulder on Friday, Feb. 28 and Sunday, March 2, respectively. Prior to that weekend, the Buffs visit Arizona State (Friday, Feb. 21) and Arizona (Sunday, Feb. 23). CU is yet to win back-to-back Pac-12 games this season.
Lappe, of course, wants her team focused on Friday and the Huskies, who slapped the Buffs 81-71 last month in Seattle, defeating a ranked team (CU was No. 21 at the time) for the first time in nearly six years. Last weekend, UW enjoyed an even bigger win, upsetting No. 3 Stanford 87-82 for its third win in four games.
“You know what’s ahead of you and everybody knows about the last six (games),” Lappe said. “You look at the opportunities you have left and, yeah, we have some. But the first opportunity is Friday. We have to be dialed in and focused on our next opponent.”
Lappe’s players sense the chance for a strong finish, but, noted forward Arielle Roberson, “We have to capitalize on it. I feel like we’ve got a good little turnaround going, like we’re getting back to our normal selves. I think we’ve all looked at the schedule and we do think it plays in our favor. But it’s good to keep it in perspective; we can’t look any further ahead than Friday night.”
CU is 4-8 in the conference (14-9 overall) while UW and WSU are 6-6 and two spots ahead (fifth) in the standings. The Buffs lost by 10 points to both the Huskies and Cougars last month, and they can’t help remembering how much damage UW’s backcourt did in Seattle.
Guard Kelsey Plum, one of the Pac-12’s stellar freshmen, and junior Jazmine Davis combined for 55 points against the Buffs. Plum scored 35 of those, including hitting 18-of-19 free throws – a CU opponent record. Averaging 19.7 points, Plum is the nation’s No. 2 freshman scorer, and averaging 38.9 points, the Plum-Davis combo is the No. 2 scoring backcourt in the nation.
Lappe called Plum a “very smart” player who has helped take the scoring and ball-handling loads off of team-catalyst Davis (19.2 ppg). “At their place, we just didn’t defend,” Lappe said, pointedly referring to the combined 55 points scored by Plum-Davis. “They’re a tough team; they don’t play many players (seven vs. Stanford, with all five starters were in double figures) but they execute their offense really well. We let them play to their strength in the first game, and when you let a team do that you’re in for a long night.”
In CU’s last three games, Lappe points to increased consistency from Roberson, forward Jen Reese, guard Brittany Wilson and freshman guard Haley Smith. Roberson has averaged 15.2 points and 7.2 rebounds in the last three contests, while Reese is at 11.1 points/8.2 boards. Wilson (10.1/5.2) and Smith (7.0/4.0) have been steady, with Lappe noting of Smith, “It’s taken time for her to get to know everything we do and it’s taken time for me to get to know what she brings. She’s a good player and is going to get better.”
Over her last three games, Roberson characterized her play as “pretty solid, but still plenty of room for improvement in the small things. I can definitely get better in shooting free throws (she went 5-for-18). But as a team, we’ve talked about finishing games and it’s great to see us finally do it. I think we’ve begun playing to win (late in games) instead of not to lose. We’ve had a good little run and as long as we continue to play good basketball, I think things will work out.”