David Zalubowski/Associated Press file photo
David Zalubowski/Associated Press file photo
The command came from the person behind the camera who was snapping photo after photo at midcourt for a team poster – act goofy.
And so they did.
The players on the Colorado women’s basketball team made funny faces, leaned on one another to the point of tipping over and even did pushups in the front row.
Off to an 11-0 start, the Buffaloes are definitely a cheerful and chipper bunch these days. Only, it’s now time to turn serious as No. 20 Colorado hosts fourth-ranked Stanford tonight in the Pac-12 Conference opener.
Or is it?
The reason for the Buffaloes’ success on the court may be as simple as this: They just don’t take themselves too seriously.
Others are, of course. Or at least beginning to, anyway.
Once a formidable power in the ranks of women’s hoops, the Buffaloes had fallen off the radar in recent seasons. But that’s starting to change.
With former CU standout Linda Lappe now leading the squad, the Buffs are gaining recognition ever so steadily. They’re back in the rankings for the first time in five years and have their sights set on making the NCAA Tournament field, which they haven’t done since 2004.
“I feel like people are talking about Colorado basketball again,” said Lappe, whose team faces quite an opening week of league play as they follow up Stanford with seventh-ranked California two days later. “We’ve started to turn some heads.
“Obviously, though, the more teams that you can beat that are quality teams, the more ingrained you become in the chat about women’s basketball.”
Make no mistake: Colorado definitely will have the full attention of Stanford (11-1), a squad smarting after a 61-35 loss to Connecticut last week that not only snapped the Cardinal’s nation-leading home winning streak but also dropped them from the top spot in the poll.
“Are they going to be really mad? Yes, they’re going to be upset,” said Lappe, who’s in her third season of reviving her alma mater after spending three years at Metro State of the Rocky Mountain Athletic Conference. “But at the same time, I feel like we just have to worry about us.”
There was a time when the Buffs had to be creative even to think about keeping up with an elite team such as Stanford. CU would rely on trick defenses or any other ploy just to stay relatively close.
Now, that’s hardly an issue.
“It’s not necessarily who we play anymore, it’s more, ‘Are we going to do the things we do well as a team?’” said Lappe, who’s one of eight Division I women’s head coaches to have played for an AP-ranked team and then returned to lead the program into the AP poll. “We understand what our identity is and who we are.”
And just what is that identity?
“We play tough defense, and we love to rebound the basketball,” she said. “We’ve become a pretty physical team. This year, we’re not in survivor mode. We hope to be in attack mode.”
The Buffs are brimming with confidence, especially after knocking off a Louisville squad earlier in the season that was ranked in the top 10.
They drew even more inspiration by watching film of UConn beating Stanford because the Buffs, much like the Huskies, base everything around stifling defense.
And stopping Stanford all starts with this: Finding a way to bottle up star Chiney Ogwumike.
“She’s just a great player,” Lappe said as she sat on the bench Wednesday after watching her team act zany for the team photo.
The Buffs may have a player on the cusp of becoming the next Ogwumike – or so they hope. Redshirt freshman Arielle Roberson plays a lot like Ogwumike, who was named to the preseason All-America team.
Like her counterpart, Roberson’s a vital part of the offense, averaging 15.7 points a game.
Maybe not that long ago, the Buffaloes wouldn’t have attracted an athlete such as Roberson, who was a highly decorated forward out of San Antonio.
Sure, her brother, Andre, plays for the men’s team, and that was a drawing card to lure her to Boulder. But she also gave thought to attending North Carolina State, maybe even more so after dropping in on one of Lappe’s early practices a few seasons ago as Roberson evaluated schools.
“It wasn’t the best practice I’ve seen by a college team,” Roberson said, laughing.
Later that year, Roberson returned for another visit when the Buffs made the WNIT.
“So much better,” said Roberson, who sat out last season after undergoing surgery to fix a torn labrum in her left hip. “That was a big jump in such a short amount of time. To see that kind of growth, I thought that was a really good thing on coach Lappe’s part.”
They’ve been heading forward ever since.
For the second consecutive season, Colorado went undefeated in the nonconference portion of its schedule. Only, the Buffs don’t want a repeat of last year when they subsequently struggled in league play and missed the NCAA Tournament.
That could be why recognition has been slow to arrive this season, despite some impressive wins.
“I think people will still question us, and that’s OK,” Lappe said. “They’re like, ‘How are they really? Yeah, they won their nonconference games. But what are they going to do in the conference?’
“But this is a completely different feel than it ever has been. We’re going to focus on the things we can control. We can’t control what others are saying. We know what we have to do when we get on the floor.”
Roberson couldn’t agree more.
“Handling our business in the conference is the next step for us,” Roberson said. “With beating (Stanford), or even hanging anywhere close with them, other teams will start to take us a little more serious. If they don’t know about us, they will.”
The Durango Herald contributed to this report.