Brooks: Payne, No. 20 Buffs Ready To Launch Pac-12 Play At USC

Published: Dec. 28, 2016 at 10:53 PM MST
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BOULDER – A welcome and hopefully restorative Christmas break is behind them, as is the season's first defeat. Dead ahead is a trip to LA and the Pac-12 Conference opener.

But before the No. 20 Colorado women's basketball team launches that second season Friday night at USC (7 p.m. MST, Pac-12 Network), coach JR Payne wanted – mandated, actually – the Buffs to put their holiday spirits on hold and reflect on their 82-75 home loss to Wyoming.

"You want to win them all," first-year CU coach JR Payne said. "(Athletic Director) Rick George called me a month or so ago and said, 'So we're just going to win all our games?' I said, 'Yeah, that's the plan.' And we laughed about it. But that's not the reality."

Reality hit four nights before Christmas, snapping CU's 10-game non-conference winning streak and ultimately dropping the Buffs five spots in this week's AP Top 25. And for Payne and her staff, loss No. 1 exposed a handful of fixes that needed to be addressed prior to hitting the Pac-12 road this weekend. CU plays at UCLA on Sunday afternoon (3 p.m. MST, Pac-12 Networks).

Asked a couple of days ago if her team's four days off for Christmas offered time to flush the disappointing Wyoming loss, Payne smiled and answered, "Probably – but we're going to bring it all back."

Here's why: In the last several 'W's of their 10-game winning streak, Payne believed the Buffs suffered from slippage in several fundamental areas.

"We've gotten away from the basics a little after we had success," she said. "There's so many things we need to do better as a team. As coaches we're very much about 'this is who we are, this is who we're going to be.' With our success we've allowed some things to slip."

Foremost among them: Not winning the 50-50 balls, those go-either-way opportunities that more often than not decide wins.

Said Payne: "To me that's a huge factor in who we want to be . . . you don't let that stuff slide. We need to be held accountable to those things as a team – and not just as coaches. As teammates we can never lose a loose ball. That can never happen. It's been happening more consistently the last couple of weeks and we have to reset and get better there."

Then there's rebounding. CU opens league play ranked ninth in rebounding margin (plus-5) while USC is No. 12 (plus-1.5). In last season's 66-63 win in Boulder – one of only two 'W's in league play – the Buffs out-boarded the Trojans by 13 (44-31).

USC lost its leading rebounder, Temi Fagbenle, who had 13 boards and 17 points in that loss. But then the Buffs also lost their top rebounder, Jamee Swan, to graduation.

SO THE HEAVIEST BOARD WORK this season has fallen to others: USC's has been picked up by 6-2 Kristen Simon, who is fifth in the conference in rebounding (10.1 rpg) and ninth in scoring (15.5 ppg), while CU's top two rebounders are 6-4 Zoe Correal (5.7 rpg) and 6-2 Monica Burich (5.6).

Payne characterizes the Buffs and Trojans as "pretty guard heavy," with each relying more on team than individual rebounding. "It has to be a big focus for us," she said. "We're not going to be the best rebounding team (in the conference) but we're capable of out-rebounding our opponents because so much of that is just effort and toughness."

Guard Kennedy Leonard, the Pac-12's No. 3 scorer (19.1 ppg), called rebounding "a huge thing – it lets us get out and run. The more we can get, the less they can get and the better it is for us on both ends. Put-backs are always good on the offensive end, then on the defensive end it allows us to push in transition and that's when we're at our best."

And wing Haley Smith added that while rebounding hasn't been a team strength, it could be: "That might be something we'll be focused on for this upcoming game and the season. We do have the capability to be a strong rebounding team, having that hustle and nose for the ball instead of having those 6-6 kids. It could be a strength and play to our style of play."

The Buffs and Trojans are aggressive defenders, which shows in their average steals per game. They are Nos. 1-2 in the league in that category, with CU at 14.0 and USC at 11.7. Leonard is second in the Pac-12 in steals (2.73 per game), trailing only USC freshman guard Minyon Moore (3.27), who also averages 12.4 points and 5.5 assists.

Full-court pressure, said Payne, is "a big part of (USC's) makeup. We haven't seen a lot of that this year. We haven't had to scheme a lot against full-court pressure but we have to make sure we're prepared for it. I trust our backcourt."

The Trojans lead the conference in 3-point shooting percentage (40.6) but that stat can be misleading. USC's 155 long-range attempts (63 made) are the third fewest in the conference. But there's nothing misleading about Sadie Edwards' accuracy.

A UCONN TRANSFER WHO BECAME eligible for the Trojans at mid-season last year, Edwards leads the Pac-12 in 3-point percentage (55.6), having hit 15-of-27. Edwards averages 11.3 points a game.

With the fundamental improvement that Payne was seeking in the four practices after Christmas, Leonard and Smith believe the Buffs will be prepared for their weekend on the West Coast.

Smith recalled last season's win against USC in Boulder as "being a fight . . . we really asserted ourselves in that game and willed ourselves to win that one. I think a lot of games (this season) are going to be similar to that.

"We have a really strong conference this year; there's no team that's going to hand us any sort of wins. We're going to have tough, grind-it-out, maybe ugly wins. But I kind of think it's more fun that way, too."

"We're not perfect, we still have a lot to get better at," Leonard added. "But our coaches are getting us ready and we'll be 100 percent ready on Friday. I'm excited – it's the Pac-12 and everybody is good. Almost every night you're playing a Top 25 team. It's fun."

Pac-12 play begins with a record seven league teams ranked in the AP Top 25 and six in the USA Today Coaches poll. Unranked USC is 9-2 (4-1 at home), with its two losses coming at UNLV (77-66) and to No. 5 Mississippi State (76-72) in the championship game of the Women of Troy Classic. The Trojans' best win thus far: 66-62 at then-No. 25 Texas A&M.

Friday night's game will reveal how the Buffs deal with their first loss of the season. The Christmas break, said Leonard, helped, "But losing always sticks with you."

Smith said Payne's postgame approach was both realistic and philosophical, telling the Buffs, "It was bound to happen. You don't want to have your first loss, but it's going to happen. She was supportive in that way, but she also said use this (Christmas break) time to recharge, spend time with your families and get ready for the long couple of months ahead."

Ready or not, the grind begins Friday. The Buffs don't believe they belong in the "or not" category – but the Pac-12 will make them prove it.