BOULDER – A month after the first practice of the season, the Colorado women's basketball team will finally get to play its first competition in front of fans on Saturday when it hosts Colorado Christian in an exhibition game at the Coors Events Center. Tipoff is set for 2 p.m.
The game will be an opportunity for the team to get play in front of fans for the first time, and with eight newcomers, that will be an important moment in developing the young Buffs team.
"Obviously with a lot of new people and some returners, it's going to be kind of slow," junior Kennedy Leonard said of Saturday's exhibition. "It's exciting getting to see everything coming together. We played two closed scrimmages—one against our practice players and one against another team—that's exciting, and knowing that [Saturday] is going to be open to the public, adds another element to it. I know I enjoy playing in front of other people and playing under the lights again, so I think it will be a cool experience for all of the freshmen and all of the transfers as well."
Leonard played her first collegiate game in an exhibition two years ago in an 86-46 win over South Carolina-Aiken. She got what has turned out to be an excellent collegiate career off to a great start in that contest, scoring 14 points on 6-of-9 shooting, and adding eight assists and three steals. Alexis Robinson, now also a junior, also had a big game, scoring 13 points off the bench on 6-of-9 shooting.
For Leonard, the nerves came in the time leading up to the first game. Once the ball was in play, it was just another game.
"You're nervous, you get the butterflies in your stomach and the goosebumps, but I think as soon as the ball is tipped, or as soon as you go into the game, it becomes real," Leonard said. "It's not, 'oh my gosh, I'm going to be in the game, I'm going to be in college, I'm going to be a Buffalo and play for JR Payne.' Instead, you're on the court and it's just another basketball game. It's exciting though, you're finally playing in a game and in front of other people and that's always fun."
Not everyone starts their career as well as Leonard did, however. Head coach JR Payne remembers her first game and it did not go as well as Leonard's.
"I don't remember it that well, but I remember that I wished I had played better," Payne said. "As a high school player, you're used to being the best player in the gym and things come pretty easily and naturally. And my first collegiate game was just so much faster than I was ready for. But I was a quick learner, so I realized pretty quickly that these are big women that I'm playing with and they're strong and fast and I better pick up my game."
Payne adjusted just fine; she ended up as a first-team All-West Coast Conference player at Saint Mary's (Calif.) and led the Gaels to their first-ever NCAA Tournament her senior season.
Payne said CU's returners will be key to helping the young players adjust to game speed and the collegiate level.
"Their older teammates have been really fantastic," Payne said. They've taken them under their wing, talked to them. They coach them up, they encourage them. They will help them through and it will be sort of a team effort."
"It's a huge moment for the freshmen because it's the first real game," Leonard said. "You practice, you put in the work all summer for the season. To finally get a chance to show it off to everybody and show it to the fans and to yourself and prove to yourself that what you've been doing is worth it, is a huge step in the right direction."