Unbeaten CU Buffs can make statement vs. No. 2 Stanford

BOULDER — Last January, the Colorado women’s basketball team shocked top-ranked Stanford, 77-72, in overtime.

It was a victory worth hyping. After all, it marked the Buffaloes’ first-ever win over a No. 1 team. But, really, it was just a stepping stone for a rebuilding program.

Friday night, however, the undefeated and 22nd-ranked Buffs (13-0) have a chance to make a giant leap when they host the Cardinal at 7 p.m. Second-ranked Stanford (11-3) is the defending national champion. And don’t let the Cardinal’s three losses this season fool you. All three defeats came against ranked teams, including a 65-61 loss at No. 1 South Carolina on Dec. 21.

“Stanford is a great program and it’s always been a great program,” CU junior guard Jaylyn Sherrod said. “So picking up another win against them would be huge for us.

“Playing Stanford is always a lot of fun and we always play them close. Last year we finally got over the hump when we beat them, so we’re approaching the game this year to show that we can compete with anybody. That’s what this game is about for us.”

The Buffs haven’t been to the NCAA Tournament since 2013 but they’re off to their best start since 1992-93.They’re led by fifth-year senior forward Mya Hollingshed, who has three double-doubles and leads the team in scoring, averaging 14.6 points per game. Hollingshed scored a career-high 32 points in CU’s win over Stanford last season.

Make no mistake, Stanford is still Goliath. And while CU has played a relatively weak non-conference schedule, coach JR Payne believes in her team and the direction of the program.

“We are a really good team and we have been building toward this,” Payne said. “We’ve got depth and talent. We’ve got players all the way from fifth-year seniors to freshmen who are contributing, so there is balance. And we are fun to watch. We play an up-tempo style that is fun to watch.”

Monday, Sherrod was named the Pac-12 Conference player of the week, as well as national player of the week, for her performance in the Buffs’ victories over Southern California and UCLA. It marked CU’s first-ever sweep of the Los Angeles-based teams. Sherrod averaged 20.0 points, 8.0 assists and 3.5 rebounds in those victories.

A hip injury that required surgery cut Sherrod’s sophomore season short, so she spent her time watching from the bench, learning the game.

“My basketball I.Q has grown,” she said. “Being on the bench and sitting behind ‘Coach J’ allowed me to see the things she sees on the floor.”

Sherrod, a fast, athletic player who likes to push the action, has transferred that knowledge to the court.

“By the end of last year, she had developed a kind of coach’s mindset,” Payne said. “And Jaylyn is the kind of person who wants to be the first in everything. She wants to be first in sprints, she wants to be a 4.0 student. She will attack anything you put in front of her and she’ll attack any perceived weaknesses.

“Her freshman year she was very athletic but had no real concept of help-side defense or anything like that. She had always just been faster than everybody else.”

But under the tutelage of associate head coach Toriano Towns, Sherrod studied film and put in the extra time to make herself better. She now possesses the knowledge, leadership and in-game poise the Buffs will need if they hope to knock off Stanford.

Stanford, led by guards Lexi and Lacy Hull and Haley Jones, is big, experienced and deep.  And, of course, the Cardinal also has three of the best prep talents to come out of Colorado in recent years in forwards Fran Belibi (Regis Jesuit) and Ashten Prechtel (Discovery Canyon) and guard Jana Van Gytenbeek (Cherry Creek).

Expect CU freshman guard Kindyll Wetta, a Valor Christian High School product, to see a lot of time in Friday’s game as part of CU’s plan to slow Stanford’s guards.

“The strength of my game has been absolutely, 100%, my defense,” said Wetta, who tore the ACL in both knees at Valor but managed to keep her basketball career alive.

Payne calls Wetta “any coach’s dream.”

“She came to college ready to play — emotionally, physically and mentally, maybe because of what she endured with the knee injuries,” Payne said. “She is one of our hardest working players. Whether it’s a full practice or a 30-minutes shoot-around, she’s going to be locked in and focused.

“She’s a player that, at times, I can’t afford to take out of the game, because of what she brings to the floor.”

The type of player Payne believes has the Buffs moving past growing pains.

“Our team loves the challenge of a great opponent,” she said. “We have worked really hard to make sure that our team is confident and fearless.”

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