JR Payne has CU women’s basketball back in AP Top 25

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Colorado has been perhaps the biggest surprise in Division I women’s basketball and the Buffaloes checked off another box on their list of early-season accomplishments on Monday when they entered the Associated Press poll at No. 21. It is the first national ranking for the Buffs since Jan. 13, 2014.

CU is off to a 6-0 start to the season, one of just three Pac-12 schools without a loss at this point. This is all coming off a season when the Buffs won just seven games and finished with 23 losses. First-year head coach JR Payne has a reputation for reviving struggling programs, but even she hasn’t had this much instant success at her previous two stops at Southern Utah and Santa Clara.

“It’s really early in the season so [the ranking doesn’t really matter], but it’s a great honor for the amount of work our team has put in since last spring,” Payne said. “They’ve worked really hard in the weight room and really bought in with what we’re trying to do.”

The Buffs have bought into Payne’s up-tempo style on both ends of the floor. That aggressive style on defense puts CU fifth in the nation with 14.8 steals per game and despite pushing the pace on the offensive end, CU turns the ball over just 14.2 times per game. The team’s turnover margin is +8.2 per game, leading the Pac-12 and ranking 14th in the country. A year ago, the team had a -1.6 turnover margin.

The team is also averaging nearly 20 more points per game this year compared to last season, a pace of 80.2 per night. Colorado hasn’t averaged more than 70 points over the course of a season since 2001-02.

While non-conference schedules can sometimes often be soft early in the season, CU owns victories over Kentucky, which is currently ranked No. 17, and SMU, which carries a 4-2 record after falling to the Buffs on Saturday to make the schedule respectable at the very least. Even with those two tough opponents on the schedule, CU has not trailed once this season in the second half of a game.

“People really buying into their roles is an important thing and people are really confident right now because we’re playing well as individuals and as a team,” Payne said. “I think people feel good about what they’re doing and what they’re capable of doing and they like our confidence [as a staff] in them.”

The Buffs have been extremely balanced early in the season with four different players leading the team in scoring during the first six games. Sophomore guard Kennedy Leonard has been the most consistent offensive threat, averaging 17.7 points and 7.0 assists with a pair of 20-point performances, but three others joining her in averaging double figures. Senior wing Haley Smith and sophomore guard Alexis Robinson both check in at 12.0 points per game and sophomore Ariana Freeman is averaging 11.0 points coming off the bench.

“Going into the season I think most people expected [Leonard], [Robinson], and Haley to probably carry the bulk of our offense and defense but we’ve also shown on multiple nights that different people can come in and score,” Payne said. “The best teams have a handful of people that can go off and can score and take control of the game and knock down big important shots and not just rely on one person. This team has that and we’ve proven that, so that should help breed confidence in not only ourselves, but in each other.”

CU continues non-conference action on Wednesday with a noon tipoff against Southeastern Louisiana at the Coors Events Center.

The Lady Lions are 2-3 this season. Junior guard Taylin Underwood is the leader for SELU, averaging 20.0 points.

“They are really athletic,” Payne said. “They play four guards so it will be a fast-paced game.”

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