Buffs’ Choice Assignment: Slowing Down Huskies’ Plum

SEATTLE – Almost exactly one year ago Colorado women’s basketball embarked on a road trip to Washington at 11-4, in the infancy of their harrowing Pac-12 schedule, and left with their fourth conference loss in as many tries, victims of a 35-point, six-rebound explosion from Huskies’ guard Kelsey Plum. The Buffs finished the season just 9-10 after that game.

Now Colorado is 9-8, 2-3 in conference play, and the Buffs hope that this year’s journey to Seattle will be a different sort of turning point. Standing in their way, though, is that same foe: Plum, now the nation’s leading scorer with 25.4 points per game and the catalyst of the Pac-12’s most prolific offense.

“They can all score,” Colorado head coach Linda Lappe said. “They have a nice team, they’re pretty well-rounded.”

Little of what Washington does would be possible without Plum, though; she is versatile and frighteningly efficient — she shoots 48 percent from the field, 43 percent from deep and 90 percent from the free-throw line. She has topped 30 points seven times this season, 40 points once, and doesn’t rely on any single facet of her game. In that 35-point outburst last season against the Buffs, Plum hit just three of her nine attempts from beyond the arc but went an unreal 18-of-19 at the free-throw line.

The strategy for Friday is not so much stopping Plum but containing her and keeping her out of her comfort zone.

“Let her not do what she likes to do, which is go left,” Buffs forward Jen Reese said of Colorado’s plans for the 5-foot-8 sophomore. “That’s what she loves to do, so if we can help stop the first, on all of their players, stop what they like to do, make them do a secondary move, then we’ll be successful.”

The Huskies (14-4, 3-3) can get scoring from anywhere in their starting lineup, though, even from forward Aminah Williams, whose offensive game is straight out of the Tyson Chandler mold — good screens, hard rolls to the rim and putbacks. Williams is a walking double-double and, with 10.2 boards per game, is second in the Pac-12 in rebounding. She pulls in three offensive rebounds a game, and the importance of that can’t be overstated — that’s three extra possessions every game for the conference’s best offense.

“Defensively, we’ve just gotta make sure that we limit them to one shot,” Lappe said. “That’s what they do really well, is when you do take them out of what they want, that’s where Williams comes in and tries to clean up everything, and that’s where she gets a lot of her points.”

The Buffs will rely on Reese — no slouch on the glass herself with a 7.7 rebounds-per-game average — along with center Jamee Swan to keep Williams off the boards.

“Under the rim, we wanna box her out as hard as we can,” Reese said. “Not let her get those extra rebounds, especially offensive boards. She’ll just throw it up there sometimes, get her own board and put it back in. So, if we can stop her doing that it’s gonna be a good game.”

Colorado’s own offense has improved dramatically since the beginning of conference play, and the Buffs are confident that they can keep the pace with the Huskies if the game turns into a track meet.

The nadir for Colorado’s offense came in its first three Pac-12 games, when the Buffs committed 57 total turnovers and lost by an average of 14 points. Their fourth conference game, against UCLA, started similarly ignominiously — CU trailed by as many as 21 points in the first half, but rallied behind Reese’s career-high 30 points to take the lead before eventually losing by six.

“Since the UCLA game, we’ve been focusing a lot more on our team, and not playing as individuals but playing as a team,” Reese said. “I feel like we’ve done that the last two games against Utah.”

The Buffs took care of the ball better in those two wins — the first an overtime decision in Boulder, the second a Buffs blowout in Salt Lake City — than they had all season. Each game set a season low for turnovers; the second game was the first time this year Colorado didn’t have double-digit turnovers, and it was just the Buffs’ fifth game with a positive assist-to-turnover ratio.

“Just better passes and catching the ball, catch before anything else,” Reese said about the key to the Buffs’ improvement. “We don’t wanna do a layup if we don't even have the ball, you know, that’s gonna be a turnover, and just focusing on not letting the defense speed up our offense.”

“As you get into this point in the season you want those turnovers to kinda go down and down,” Lappe elaborated. “Just because you get more familiar with the offense, you get more familiar with each other. We’ve worked a lot on passing, catching, I feel like our footworks always pretty good. It’s just a matter of, ‘Will we make the right play? Will we make the right pass?’ I feel like as we become more comfortable in our offense our defense becomes better too when we’re not chasing them from behind off of turnovers.”

Perhaps most heartening for the Buffs is that their first two conference wins came without major offensive contributions from Reese; she scored just six points in each game against Utah. Guards Lexy Kresl and Haley Smith furnished the bulk of the scoring, and freshmen Alina Hartmann and Brecca Thomas are starting to provide consistent buckets off the bench.

“Our offense is pretty good this year,” Lappe said. “I feel like when we just play, and we play hard and we play together and we have that energy, that’s when our offense really clicks.”

Their offense is clicking now, and it will have to stay hot for the Buffs to make a run through the always-deep Pac-12. Running through the conference is for another day, though. Friday is about the Huskies and it is about Kelsey Plum, the scorer whom every opponent needs to stop but no one can solve.

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