Times-Call (Longmont)

Buffs ready for marquee matchup with Stanford

- Bhowell@ prairiemou­ntainmedia.com

When the Pac-12 announced its conference schedule for women’s basketball on Oct. 11, there may not have been anyone who expected a Thursday afternoon in Boulder to have so much at stake.

The Colorado men’s basketball game on Thursday night against USC is sure to draw more fans — and it’s a big game for those teams — but it is the 3 p.m. matchup between the CU and Stanford women that is the main event on the Events Center floor.

“I know our marketing department and everyone in the university athletics department has worked hard to make sure that people know, 3 p.m., be there,” CU head coach JR Payne said. “Whatever that looks like, get there. I think it’s going to be a great game. It’s going to be great environmen­t. And yeah, it’s gonna be fun.”

Ranked No. 21, CU (216, 12-4 Pac-12) is in third place in the conference, two games behind firstplace and No. 3 Stanford (26-3, 14-2) with two games to play. In between them is No. 8 Utah (23-3, 13-3).

For the first time since the 1996-97 season, CU goes into the final week of the regular season with a chance to at least share the conference title. That

Buffs’ team in 1997 was on the tail end of a nineyear run of finishing no lower than tied for second in the conference. (CU’S last conference in 1995).

This CU team, however, has already exceeded expectatio­ns. Regardless of how

title came this weekend turns out, the Buffs will finish in the top four, with a first-round bye in next week’s Pac-12 Tournament. In the preseason, coaches and media picked CU to finish eighth after losing three multi-year starters to graduation.

“I think everyone outside of the program believed that we would be down compared to last year because of that,” Payne said. “I think those of us in the program felt like we had everything we needed to be really good and it would just take time to make sure people were comfortabl­e in new roles: new leadership roles, new scoring roles, all of that.

“I think we knew all along that we had the potential to be really good.”

For much of this season, the Buffs have been really good. They’re a lock to make a second straight NCAA Tournament appearance, something the program hasn’t done since four in a row from 2001-04.

The Buffs, however, are far from satisfied, especially after a humbling 61-42 loss at Arizona on Sunday.

“What I try to tell the team is when we have games like that, it’s not because we’re not a good team or a good program,” senior center Quay Miller said. “We were missing shots we usually make and I think with that it just comes with focus. We just need to be more focused. It’s nothing besides, just, focus.”

CU hasn’t last two in a row yet this season, and is embracing the challenge ahead as it looks to avoid a second consecutiv­e defeat on Thursday.

“It’s always fun,” senior point guard Jaylyn Sherrod said of playing Stanford. “I carry that underdog mentality at this point across my forehead. Going into the game, knowing what you’re gonna get, knowing you’ve got to be at your best … it just brings a sense of competitiv­eness and a sense of just wanting to showcase who this team is. I feel like a lot of people are still questionin­g us and don’t really know what we’re building here. But we know what we are and we know the team we can be, so it’s just about going out there and proving it.”

That’s never easy against Stanford, which is an annual contender for the national title and the marquee program in the Pac-12 year after year.

“Stanford is No. 3 for a reason,” Payne said. “They’re really good, really deep, really big, really everything you want a team to be. And so it’s always a tough matchup.

“We just are a team that likes a challenge and so we always love to play any team that’s successful like they are. They definitely have set the bar as far as the standard of excellence in this conference for women’s basketball, so we’re excited for that opportunit­y to play them at home in a very meaningful game. It’s gonna be great.”

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