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CU Buffs ready for Iowa

Photo courtesy: CUBuffs.com

Photo courtesy: CUBuffs.com

BOULDER, Colo. – Most basketball players take naturally to shooting. They didn’t grow up with a backboard and rim in the backyard and spend hours minus a ball, hands high, feet wide, sharpening their defense.

So where exactly did Haley Smith go wrong?

Nowhere really.

She doesn’t view shooting the same way a vegetarian views a T-bone, but now and then she needs a gentle reminder that if the open shot is there take it. (And don’t forget that you’re pretty good at creating your own shot too.)

It’s not that JR Payne, Smith’s coach on the Colorado women’s basketball team, has browbeaten any of her players about taking too many shots. To the contrary, Payne recalls a staff conversation from the other day that included one of her assistants observing that they’d “never been around coaches who give players such monstrous green lights.

“We pretty much never tell them it’s a bad shot – and sometimes they’re not good shots. We continue to encourage, ‘Yeah, get the next one.’ Our players really do have the ultimate green light. I think that breeds confidence to take and make big shots.”

Then there’s Smith, who finally in the twilight of her senior season appears to be realizing that she’s a more than capable shooter and that scoring points doesn’t prohibit her from fulfilling her other roles – which are many.

Payne has known Smith for a little less than a year, having taken the CU job on March 28, 2016. Payne might be stretching the truth just a wee bit when she says, “Every day since I’ve met her we’ve been asking her to shoot the ball more . . . especially last game.”

LAST GAME WAS LAST SUNDAY in Brookings, S.D., in the second round of the WNIT. CU played South Dakota State, and with starting guard Alexis Robinson out with an injury, the Buffaloes’ lineup would be missing just under 12 points.

Would you shoot the ball, Haley . . . . please?

“I think most of her life she’s felt she’s a role player and she’s not,” Payne said. “I think she knows that now; she’s had big games – games she needs to shoot the ball and it has a good chance of going in because she takes good shots.

“But I think it’s just been kind of her makeup. ‘I’m a really nice kid and I’m going to just do my job.’ There’s no ego there, that’s for sure. It’s been something that we’ve asked her to do and she’s really done it. (But) it’s in spurts; against UCLA she really shot the ball. Against Oregon at home she was really aggressive.

“We continue to tell her, ‘When you’re aggressive we’re successful. And when you’re aggressive you’re successful. And your success is our success’ – that kind of thing.”

Smith got the shoot-for-success message last Sunday. In fact, it seems to have registered with her throughout CU’s postseason, beginning with the Pac-12 Conference Tournament. Smith averages 10.7 points a game, but in the last three – a Pac-12 tourney loss to Washington State, WNIT wins over UNLV and South Dakota State – she has averaged 17.2 points.

That includes last Sunday’s contribution of 21 points, 6 rebounds, 4 steals and two assists. With Payne terming Robinson day-to-day, another overall performance like that from Smith might be needed for the Buffs to win at Iowa on Thursday (6 p.m. MDT, BTN2GO; 1190 am, KVCU) in the WNIT’s Sweet Sixteen.

Any reluctance Smith might have to shoot the basketball is hard to comprehend. In the last three games she’s hit 67 percent of her field goal attempts (22-of-33) and is 8-of-11 (73 percent) from beyond the arc. In the 82-75 overtime win at SDSU, she hit 9-of-14 from the field, 3-of-5 from long range.

So why has Smith not been in rapid-fire mode for her entire career? It’s not for a lack of being encouraged: “I’ve heard it a lot in my career during high school and coming to college,” she said. “People would say I should be shooting more and when I’m open to do it.”

Sometimes, she admits, she’s hung up on thinking she has to be almost all alone before she shoots. And creating her shot off the dribble or an opportunity to get to the rim are thoughts that sometimes quickly pass.

But Payne’s nudge last weekend helped her.

“I think it was really something good for her to remind me of before that game,” Smith said. “I felt like I had her confidence in me and I had confidence in myself and the team’s backing as well. So I felt like whenever I had an open look I definitely went up and shot. It’s something that obviously I’m in the postseason of my senior year and still getting used to.”

In Iowa (19-13) CU will face what Payne calls “pretty much everything you want in a team – a good post player, experienced guard play, size on the perimeter, some athleticism – not jump out of the gym athleticism, but kids that can move and run.”

The Hawkeyes favor scoring in transition but in post player Megan Gustafson, a 6-3 sophomore, have an inside presence much like the Buffs faced in the Pac-12. Gustafson averages 18.7 points and 10 rebounds.

“We’ve played against some fantastic post players,” Payne said. “Most of those times we’ve done that it hasn’t been one-on-one; it’s been a group effort. We’ve had a good game plan. It’s not that our post players can’t defend one-on-one, but we just felt like with some of the length and scrappiness on our perimeter we could utilize them as well.”

BUT THERE’S MORE TO THE Hawkeyes than Gustafson. As a team Iowa averages nearly six 3-pointers a game and shoots 31 percent from beyond the arc. Makenzie Meyer (36 percent) and Ally Disterholt (34 percent) are the sharpshooters, with Disterholt becoming Iowa’s career scoring leader in the first-round WNIT win against Missouri State.

Payne says the Hawkeyes “could be in the Pac-12 easily . . . they have that type of versatility on the perimeter.”

That Smith and the Buffs (17-15) are still playing might be a surprise to everyone but them. After their 10-0 start and No. 15 national ranking, they expected more of themselves in the Pac-12.

“I know we had a little higher hopes for the Pac-12 season as far as record goes,” Smith said. “But I think we’re all super excited and happy to be in the postseason again.”

They also should be super loose, supremely confident. Payne says her team, which surrendered a 13-point fourth-quarter lead last weekend but regrouped to win in overtime, knows it is “capable of playing really well. We know we can defend, we know at times we can score. We know if we really set our minds to it we can rebound.

“But it has to be very concentrated effort in all of those things. I hope they’re confident but mostly I know they’re capable of playing very well . . . I think everyone around us is excited that we can play again. We should be loose, carefree, go in and play hard, have fun and celebrate our success.”

Added Smith: “We’re playing free and loose because what is there to lose? I mean we might as well go out there and give everything you’ve got each game. The next game isn’t guaranteed; you’re playing with reckless abandon and giving it 100 percent because there might not be anything else after that.”

Which is all the more reason that Haley Smith shouldn’t pass up any shots.

Story Courtesy CUBuffs.com, Contributing Editor B.G Brooks