Brooks: Buffs Eye Third Game, New Result vs. Trojans
SEATTLE - Come early March and the arrival of conference tournament time, basketball teams aren't left with many secrets. Anything that might have been hidden in January has been revealed through the regular season schedule. Familiarity reigns.
So it is with the Pac-12 Conference women's tournament, which starts here Thursday in venerable, cozy KeyArena.
Here's some of what coach Linda Lappe and her Colorado team know about Southern California, the ninth-seeded Buffs' opening opponent on Thursday night (7 p.m. MST, Pac-12 Networks):
- The Trojans, seeded eighth, swept their regular-season meetings with the Buffs - 81-61 in Boulder and 66-51 in Los Angeles;
- USC favors an up-tempo, transition game and applies ferocious full-court pressure which can make turnovers stack up like the seafood in Pike Place Market;
- The last three weeks of the regular season weren't kind to the Trojans (15-14, 7-11). They lost four of their final six games, including three consecutive before they packed for the trek up the West Coast.
But here's what Lappe and the Buffs (13-16, 6-12) don't know about USC - and it might be the first round's largest unknown:
- What's the status of Alexyz Vaioletama, the Trojans' top player who missed USC's season-ending road trip through Washington last weekend with a concussion?
As of Tuesday, according to Lappe, USC's all-conference senior forward had not cleared the school's concussion protocol, leaving Vaioletama's status for Thursday night unknown. But the Buffs haven't fashioned their game plan around her being on the bench. Said Lappe: "Who knows what day (of the prescribed rest period) she's in, but we're assuming she's going."
And Vaioletama does indeed go. Now averaging a team-best 12.3 points and 6.8 rebounds (No. 2), she increased both numbers in the double-digit wins over the Buffs, combining for 30 points and 13 rebounds. She's shooting almost 50 percent (49.4) from the floor and, in Lappe's words, "makes them go, she's their energy . . . she's just a huge force."
Even if Vaioletama isn't cleared to play, the Buffs still don't get a free pass to the quarterfinals. The Trojans have talent and tourney experience; they are the defending Pac-12 Tournament champs, having won four games in four days last March as the No. 5 seed.
BUT THIS MARCH FINDS USC and CU in the same listing boat. Their only route to the NCAA Tournament is the automatic berth that the Trojans secured last season by winning the conference tournament.
"This is their chance to get to NCAAs, just like us," Lappe said. They are who they are, we are who we are . . . at this point you always tweak a few things but we have our ID, they have theirs. Now it becomes which team can be strong, mentally tough, and do things efficiently."
Lappe believes the Buffs are playing their best basketball of a roller-coaster season. Recent numbers suggest she's right: her team has won three of its last six games, with two of the losses to Top 10 opponents (No. 7 Oregon State, the tournament's top seed; No. 10 Arizona State, the second seed).
"We are ready to go," said CU senior forward Jen Reese. "Yes, right now we are playing our best basketball . . . everyone is on the same page, everyone knows their role and what they're doing."
Reese couldn't have said that in mid-January, when the Buffs were a model of inconsistency and a collective turnover waiting to happen. In losses to USC and UCLA on their LA swing, CU committed a staggering 50 total turnovers. In the two losses to USC, the total was 43.
Better concentration on taking care of the ball and more focus on maximizing possessions, said Lappe, have improved the Buffs' efficiency. She added that bench productivity has increased over the past month, which could be a factor against a relatively thin USC team. "We're at our best when our bench can come in and give us key minutes," Lappe said. "And our bench has contributed."
Reese also noted that this is the time of year (and in her career) when playing one more game is never guaranteed. "I think a lot (of the team-wide improvement) has to do with not liking to lose," said Reese, who had 13 points and eight rebounds in the loss to USC in Boulder but managed only two points against the Trojans in LA.
"Our practices have gotten more intense; we're working so hard and we want it to pay off," she continued. "The seniors want to leave a legacy and finish strong . . . no one wants to be finished on Thursday night."
USC allows its opponents to shoot 42.6 percent from the field - last in the Pac-12. The Buffs' shooting percentage - 42.3 - is right at what the Trojans yield. But, noted Lappe, offense hasn't been her fifth CU team's shortcoming. The Buffs are averaging 69.4 points a game - the best since 2003-04 - but yielding 68.7 points.
THAT LEAVES A MINISCULE margin for error, and a game with an outrageous turnover total eradicates any wiggle room. Thus, one of Thursday night's keys for CU is keeping the errors manageable against USC's pressure.
"We have to take care of the ball," Reese understated. "We know they'll pressure us."
Added Lappe: "I feel better about it (turnovers decreasing) than I did two and a half weeks ago. Everyone knows about everyone at this time of year. We know what they're going to do defensively. Now we have to put that into practice for 40 minutes and play a complete game, which we've had trouble doing."
Just as vital if the Buffs are to advance as they've done in the previous three Pac-12 tourneys (3-3) is ramping up their defense, particularly in transition. The Trojans, noted Reese, "love to run . . . their primary offense is transition - really it's their first and second options. I think we can stop them in their half-court (offense)."
Lappe was in agreement: "What we have to do is find ways to score, but we also have to be willing to win ugly . . . our defense let us down in some situations this year."
Reese said many of those letdowns occurred because the Buffs lapsed late in the shot clock. "It's been all mental, nothing physical," she said. "We weren't bearing down in the last 10-15 seconds of the clock. We were great in the beginning, then we slipped up. We can't do that here."
The improbable road to the NCAA Tournament gets no more navigable for the CU-USC winner: top-seeded Oregon State awaits in Friday night's quarterfinals. It would be foolhardy to do so, and none of the Buffs or their coach is looking that far ahead.