BOULDER – Six hours before Colorado hosts Oregon State, a 2016 Final-Four team, Kennedy Leonard starts to put some shots up. With the help of a teammate, what starts as fun turns into a rigorous shooting session.
She’s not known for her ability to shoot, and works tirelessly at improving that aspect of her game. Leonard stampers to the end of Sox Walseth court that sits in the shadow of a mural featuring several Colorado greats, captioned “where legends roam.” But her presence below these faces is not a reminder of the past. It’s a threat — soon they will need to change this mural—soon this mural might include her.
Colorado Women’s Basketball has a long, storied history. Glory came with current Colorado Athletics administrator Ceal Barry at the helm. Her illustrious 22-year tenure produced 427 wins, 12 NCAA tournament berths and three Elite Eight appearances. Colorado Basketball from 1983 to 2005 was a juggernaut.
The last 12 years tell a different story. While the men’s team has seen their own golden era, the women’s program is now on their third coach since Barry. They’ve stumbled to a sleepy 185-197 record while only making one NCAA Tournament.
This is the environment Leonard knows, competing for a once-great program in a sour stretch. But she represents a light at the end of a dark tunnel, a glimmer of hope for the program. Why? Because that’s what she wants.
Shoot around hasn’t even started and Leonard, with the help of some management staff and fifth-year senior Lauren Huggins, continues her pregame preparation. Music blares, gym shoes squeak and nylon is stroked. She looks ready—she has five hours to wait.
She joins her team for a film session. They come back out together for a run-through of the Beavers game plan. Leonard is loose, confidence oozing and effective as her team responds with pregame swagger, all despite a 4-10 conference record. But the mindset is understandable coming from the five-foot-eight guard.
Leonard is in the midst of a sparkling sophomore season, stepping up from a five-star freshman to an All-Pac-12 first teamer. The conference’s fourth-leading scorer, she is the only underclassman that ranks in the top 15. Her name is ever-present on the Conference of Champions’ leaderboard, ranking among the top three in assists, assist-to-turnover ratio and steals.
The statistics are impressive, and it doesn’t require a double take to see an anomaly in Leonard. But she’s a uniquely gifted basketball player who came to a struggling program. To understand her decision, and to understand why her name is mentioned along with the greatest players in program history after just two years, you have to understand one thing: her vision is unbelievably uncommon.
Leonard’s sight on the hardwood makes her a decisive leader, averaging just under six assists a game. But this isn’t what sets her apart. It’s her perspective, in her recognition that Colorado Basketball was a rare opportunity. She could’ve gone anywhere in the country; she chose Boulder. Twice.
“I could’ve gone to a program where they have 100 wins straight or a place where I could be another player but for me, I wanted to go somewhere that valued me as a person and not just as a basketball player,” Leonard recalled. “To go to a place where I could change things and leave it better than where I found it. Last year—if I would’ve left, I had the opportunity with the coaching—I think if I would’ve left I would not have fulfilled my goal which is ‘make it better than how I found it.’ I haven’t done that yet, we’re not close but I know with J (coach JR Payne) and T (coach Toriano Towns), and with who we have coming in, if we just keep trucking, the tough time will be over soon.”
Not only did Colorado have to convince the five-star to play at the foot of the flatirons, but the Buffaloes also had to convince a Pac-12 All-Freshman honoree to stay.
Following last season’s seven wins, the lowest total since Barry’s six in her second season (1984-85), head coach Linda Lappe was fired. This opened the door for every single player on the roster to transfer. JR Payne’s first task as a coach was making sure the standout freshman stayed.
“The first day that coach J was here she walked in wearing a cross and I know that seems silly but that spoke volumes to me,” Leonard points to a reason of why she stayed. “I’m rooted in my faith and to know she felt the same was a moment that will stick with me the rest of my life. I’m in FCA (Fellowship of Christian Athletes) here which is a cool thing and I think everyone here that goes really believes in His word and His truth. Every night I read devotionals, me and Huggy (Huggins) even send our devotionals back and forth, I even bought her a cross necklace for Christmas.”
It may seem moot to some but her faith, both in herself and her religion, is a thing that defines Leonard.
“I’ve been through some things in my life but I love basketball more than anything other than my family and my faith in God,” she explained. “But last season was probably the toughest thing I had to go through since it wasn’t just a one week or a one-month thing, our seasons are long. It lasted and it was tough. But the best advice I got from it was that ‘tough times don’t last, tough people do.'”
Because Leonard is comfortable in her own shoes, it lets her step into others’ to lead. Even as a sophomore, her voice carries a heavy cadence over the other Buffs on the court. She leads the herd, it’s easy to see.
“I’m huge in my faith and I think God puts us all in positions that we all need to be in and he placed me in a position to be a leader on this team,” the point guard said. “It’s not comfortable for me to talk to everyone and be outgoing because I like to stick to myself and I’m quieter in that regard, but in situations that God has placed all of us we have to get outside of our comfort zone and grow. But I don’t just want to be another person, I think a lot of people are followers and they follow what other people tell them to do or do what other people tell them to do… I’m Kennedy, I’m unique and I don’t want to settle. I’m not here to be anyone but me and if anyone wants me to be anyone other than me, I won’t do it. As long as I stay true to that and God’s will, I’ll be okay.”
That attitude is similar to the one carried by her elder forward.
“Whatever anyone believes in, I think it’s important when you can grasp onto something other than basketball,” the veteran Huggins mentioned. “My freshman year when I was really struggling with injuries, my faith was the only thing I had. With that it pulled me out of a really dark spot, and so for Kennedy to come in and be very open about her faith and find connections on campus and within our team especially with JR, I think that it’s important for her to know that she’s always playing for something bigger than herself or this team… For her, she’s always thinking about the big picture and I think she gets that from what she believes in…there is always a glimmer of hope and things happen for a reason, and there is always someone else who is looking out for you.”
That hope is what pulled Leonard through last year’s struggles. In remembering them, the once quiet sophomore became bombastic about her enduring faith.
“If we lose a game, it’s easy for me to still have faith in things. That’s probably my biggest takeaway from my religion and having faith, things can go however they want to go and they’re gonna go that way because God is making them go that way… I think at times, especially with basketball, it’s easy to get off track from that and question things after losses, but at the same time, things don’t happen unless they’re meant to. I use my faith in basketball, I use it in my life or in my schoolwork.”
Some may claim that faith is blind, but Leonard’s foresight is no clearer than when she hits the gym. There is nobody in Colorado athletics who works as hard as she does, and her faith that effort breeds results is consistently reinforced in her numbers. Leonard’s game steadily improved throughout her first two seasons, and this is the reason why her potential is sky high.
Her high numbers are matched by the heights of her work ethic. Spending two hours before and after each practice getting up extra shots, it’s almost remarkable that she sometimes misses.
“I’m hitting shots when they matter most, in that Cal game I only had nine points. I just couldn’t make anything, I was in a slump, shooters go through slumps and I might not be a shooter but I’m a scorer and I hit that three when it mattered. I always get mad at myself because I spend all these hours in the gym and I can’t make a shot and I question if something is wrong with me but I try to just laugh off the misses because I spend so many hours in the gym, at the end of the day they either do or don’t go in. If I can only improve that, every area of my game has improved but now it’s how do I keep improving, especially if I want us to end up in the NCAA Tournament, to win Pac-12 Championship, or if I want to be the best version of me, I have to be better. It’s tough, but the true definition of a winner is to take advantage of everything that has been given to you.”
Colorado head coach JR Payne, now on her third stop as a head coach and sixth stop overall, is a former point guard with as unique of a story as the one she coaches.
Playing at Saint Mary’s from 1995-99, she led the Gaels to their first ever NCAA Tournament in her senior season. She still ranks on the school’s all-time top 10 lists in both assists (291, seventh) and steals (137, ninth). As a senior, she was an All-West Coast Conference first-team performer and was selected to the WCC All-Tournament Team in each of her upperclassman years. SMC recorded a 79-38 record during her time there.
While both Payne and Leonard have had great success playing the point, their similarity lies in having endured coaching changes. Halfway through Payne’s playing days at SMC, Kelly Graves took over as the Gaels’ head man and spurred the school to two straight successful seasons.
Eventually, Graves moved on to Gonzaga and Payne joined his staff and that is how Payne got her start on the bench.
Thus, Payne knew exactly what Leonard was going through when Lappe and CU parted ways after her freshman season.
The connection between the Colorado point guard and coach is special but it’s Payne’s admiration for Leonard’s work ethic that first drew her eye to the star guard.
“It’s unlike—we’ve had a couple players over the years with that type of work ethic but we’ve coached a lot of people in 16 years—she’s right there at the top in terms of work ethic, she wants to be great, she wants to lead, she wants to be the best, and she wants to help us build our program into one that’s competing for championships,” Payne described. “She puts a lot of weight on her shoulders, and to tell the truth there is a lot of weight on her shoulders, she’s our best player, she’s young, so she’s got time to grow and to push other people to grow as well, but that work ethic is special, and it’s unique and that’s what makes her so good.”
Leonard’s load is lightened by her companion, a German shepherd named Gus. She adopted Gus from the Humane Society last fall.
Unlike your typical college girl, Leonard does not get to see her puppy every day. During the season, Gus lives with Leonard’s parents. It would be impossible for Leonard, affectionately just called “Ken” by everyone on campus, to be there for Gus with what her average day looks like.
“Mondays are usually our off days,” Leonard sat back, laughed, and told. “Every Monday coach Shan and coach J text me, ‘ you better be home, you better be resting,’ and every time they text me I’m in the gym shooting. Maybe I’m bored, but I love to be in the gym and to be doing something. Basketball is my happy place, some people like to go out but I’d rather be in the gym, I don’t even have to be shooting, I could just be sitting at the gym. It’s where I’m comfortable. This place—Colorado—gives me the chance to do that. I don’t get to see my dog and I’m gone from 8 a.m. to 8 p.m. and I have school work, and I lose a lot of sleep and I’m always tired but at the same time other people are working just as hard as me and there are a ton of people that want to be where I am and they don’t have the chance to or the privilege to.”
Gus is just a reminder of the sacrifices Leonard makes to be great. The sacrifices she makes to be a leader, which is something she’s still working on. Mainly, keeping her frustrations—which comes from her extreme work ethic—in check.
“Last year I struggled with that,” she said. “I would miss a shot and get frustrated and I think you could tell that I was frustrated. It impacted some of the plays in the game too. This offseason J noticed in practice sometimes—I get frustrated, I spend all those hours shooting, it can wear on you—when I get mad I might kick a ball and J picked up on that and said ‘we’re gonna tally these and get better at it.’ Props to her, she’s always telling me to keep my head up and to keep shooting, and the one thing she told me that sticks with me above anything else, no matter how many shots I make that she believes in me, loves me and trust me more than anyone. Right before I hit that shot at Cal, she whispered in my ear ‘I’d take you to war over any other point guard in the country,’ and when J says that it elevates it, she’s the head coach, she played point guard and she’s already done incredible things in her short coaching career. To have her in my corner and helping with this is huge, something I still struggle with knowing people are looking at me and that when I get upset it doesn’t help anything and it might make it worse, my goal is to make everyone better so that needs to stop. When I miss a shot or a free throw now I just try to laugh at myself. Coach writes little messages on my wrists before games, like smiley faces and other reminders that life could be a lot worse than missing a shot. If I miss a shot or turnover the ball my life isn’t over, those constant reminders, they’re helpful.”
“She’s so hardcore, she really is genuinely pissed every time she misses a shot,” Payne said with a sly smile. “Kennedy and I have this thing where a lot of time we are thinking the same things. A few games ago we were in a really loud gym and she couldn’t hear me but I looked at her and we connected she goes, ‘I got you,’ whatever it was I was trying to say I didn’t have words for it because it was too loud but we were laughing because me and her were on the same page. I think she very much knows that I believe in her and I tell her that, and I tell her that I’m proud of her and she’s carrying a big weight on her shoulders and that’s not always easy. But the biggest thing is that she knows that I believe in her. When you miss a shot I’m always telling her, ‘It’s okay, who cares, it’s no big deal, just get the next one,’ I think she’s learned to get better with that. Earlier in the year, she was so frustrated when she would do something wrong, but she’s starting to realize that it’s okay and you can fix it.”
Leonard doesn’t just have one head coach to look to for advice as she continues to take the conference by storm; she has two.
One month after Barry retired from coaching she joined the athletic department as an administrator. She’s been in her current role as the senior women’s administrator for over a decade and she is very committed to making sure what was once her program can return to greatness.
“I met Kennedy on her recruiting visit, more than one time, I met her high school coach when coach Lappe was recruiting her and I kept hearing about this kid so we created a relationship then,” the fabled former coach said. “I’ve seen her improve over the past two years so much, I don’t see her as often now because the women’s basketball operations have moved to Coors and I’m at Champions Center but we have a special bond. Kennedy Leonard and I have a special bond.”
The California game, which the characters in this story continue to reference, saw Leonard hit a pull-up three-pointer with under a minute left to knock off No. 24 Cal on their home court, earning CU their first conference road win in two years.
The shot that won the game is not what stands out about that day, it’s the many shots from before the game that standout.
“I love Ceal, I always say you wouldn’t know Ceal is Ceal Barry unless you knew her because she walks around here just like any other person,” Leonard said. “She’s nonchalant but she’s become a mentor for me—in between games, especially when she travels with us, she’s always rebounding for me or helping me out in any way she can—everything she says I respect it because she’s a legend. To have Ceal be here and still be around with her influence over the program is unique because I don’t think you get that a lot of places. I’m thankful for her, I’m thankful for her influence on the entire program and the goal is to get it back to what it was when she was at the helm.”
“I did that the other day at Cal,” Barry remembered her slight help a few weeks back. “She’s talented and I think she knows she wants to compete at a high level and she knows when I was coaching we were at that high level and she wants that. We have a lot in common.”
Leonard wants to be at the high level where she is compared to some of Barry’s best players ever such as Mandy Nightingale and All-American Shelley Sheetz.
“I think Kennedy has the potential to be as good as Kennedy wants to be,” the Colorado native and longtime Buffaloes fan Huggins said. “And by that I mean she is obviously a great scorer, she plays phenomenal defense, she reminds me a lot of Chuckie Jeffery’s scoring mentality and now that she’s finding a voice she reminds me a bit of Lexy Kresl because although Kennedy is a true point guard, Lexy was our floor general. While Kennedy is able to direct and score and come off ball screens as a real triple threat, she has the potential to grow into whoever she wants to be, and be up with names like Shelley Sheetz and be recognizable like Lisa Van Goor.”
“I think Kennedy might be a better ball handler and passer,” Barry recalled of one of her best pupils. “Shelley was a pure shooter, she probably could’ve been a shooting guard whereas Kennedy is all point guard, we transitioned Shelley from a shooting guard to a point guard. But both of them love to win and they love basketball, basketball is their life, and it’s in their blood.”
Sheetz was a Naismith Award Finalist in her senior season, CU’s first and only Kodak All-American. In 1995 she led the Buffs to a 30-3 record. Sheetz went on to finish second in school history in scoring with 1,775 points, a figure that still ranks third two decades later; she is also second all-time in assists, third in steals, and is CU’s all-time leader in three-point field goals made. Colorado was an absurd 106-21 during her career.
“It first starts with the little things,” Leonard said when trying to be a player with the legacy of a Sheetz. “Especially with the new staff, they stress the fundamentals of everything but it’s a mindset, last year is gone and done with and it’s a new beginning this year and we might not be at the 30-3 level yet but slowly every game you see a little bit more of a new team, a new program, a new culture and if we can only continue building that culture eventually, it might not be by when I’m a senior, but I think I can leave a legacy that I’m proud of. I’d love to go to the NCAA Tournament, that’s what I came here for… last year we only won two games in the Pac-12 and this year we’ve already won four and it might not seem like a lot, but it’s a little thing and that’s a big thing. If only I can help the culture, help make one that sticks, I think we can be successful.”
The reminder for Barry comes not in playing style but rather the dedication of Leonard to shift the culture, one workout at a time.
“Shelley Sheetz was that way, Kennedy is that way, they both put extra shots up, she’s not great because she was born that way, she’s great because she practices,” Barry said matter of factly. “She shoots more than anyone, she handles the ball more than anyone, she’s in the gym extra hours, she works hard at her game. She takes it seriously, my guess is that she will play or coach professionally, she and Shelley are very similar in that respect.”
While Sheetz’ dominance, being a three-time all-conference honoree, an honor Leonard is on her way to as well makes for an easy comparison, it’s Nightingale’s time at CU that is more similar to the experience that Leonard is going through. Sheetz’ path was straight up; the team was established, she was great and they performed as such. Nightingale’s sophomore year saw CU have a record of just 10-19, a bad mark by Barry’s standards.
One of the reasons for the poor record was upheaval within the program. CU lost six players from Nightingale’s freshman team, mostly because of transfers. This left Kami Carmann as the team’s only upperclassman, a junior, for the 10-win 1999-2000 season.
But by the time she was done with college, she had led CU to two straight tournaments, including the Elite Eight as a junior.
Some have compared Leonard to Nightingale because of the similar status of the program each is having to overcome. Where Nightingale looked Carmann, Leonard looks to Huggins.
'My Best Friend'
“Ever since Kennedy first came I’ve taken it upon myself to take her under my wing and show her what basketball is all about,” the highly thought of, often described as ‘selfless leader’ Huggins said. “You’re going to have highs and lows and you’re going to have other things to focus on other than basketball. Helping her develop leadership characteristics which she has clearly stepped into… Just making sure she knows her voice is valued on this team and that she has the potential to be a great and strong leader is something I try to instill in her every day.”
The belief in oneself to be great is one that Leonard has grown more comfortable in, as is her role as a young leader.
“It wasn’t an easy transition,” she said. “Being a freshman with last year’s season and also having to be a leader within that season was tough but everyday no matter if it was a good or bad day Huggy texts me and she tells me what I need to work on and that type of thing—sometimes you have rough days, everyone does—she will text me pieces of advice from what she has been through because she has been here for so long. She always throws positive energy my way and is there for me. I can fall back on her and that’s such a nice thing because when you play a Division-I sport, a lot of attention is on you and some days it feels like you’re being hit from everywhere so it’s nice to have someone like Huggy.”
“That’s a good and mature standpoint,” Payne spoke to Leonard’s development as a quote of the point guard’s was read back to the coach. “She has good examples on the team and in her life. Especially in Huggy who is one of the most selfless individuals I’ve ever coached. To still be so positive and upbeat, she never has a bad day and she never does anything but try to pick people up, I think that’s a pretty great example.”
She’s never far from ‘Huggy.’ Whether it’s just their friendship or the esteemed guard sees the forward as someone that is of value to her own development, it’s clear their relationship has been huge in her maturation.
“Lauren is my best friend, not just on the court,” the Texas native said. “We laugh together after plays but in life anything that goes on she’s been through it all, a fifth-year senior, we went to Pac-12 Media Day together which was a great experience. Our parents go out together all of the time, they like to go to different restaurants together. Me and Huggy go out with them and laugh with them, and to have that kind of support system behind us and to have another family here for myself is a really cool feeling for me and I know my teammates feel the same.”
To raise the leader of a herd it takes an entire athletic department and the community that surrounds it. A good start for that family vibe for the Buffaloes is the marriage between head coach Payne and her husband, assistant Toriano Towns.
Between Payne and Towns’ family—including kids that Leonard sees a lot of—Huggins family and the entire support staff of the women’s program now being treated like a second home, the growth of Leonard has been fostered by a welcoming environment.
“It starts with Coach J and Coach T, the first day they came in they talked to us and broke down who they were, what they think and what their values are,” their leading scorer remembered. “They also said we want to get to know you as people before we even step on the court with you—to me relationships are a big thing, coming from a coaching staff that we didn’t all have those relationships with everyone on that staff—for Coach J and Coach T to say that to us on the first day and for them to be married and be bringing their kids around us a ton, having Huggy’s family where we can go out to their house and have a family meal in Littleton and they take care of us like we’re all their daughters and Ceal it really is a family. I take JR’s kids to movies all the time and I hang out with them. This team, we break our huddles to ‘family,’ I think the more you think it, the more you become it.”
“I think it’s special too,” the coach said of her star guard who part times as a babysitter for her kids. “Ken, I and Alexis spent a lot of time together, when we first got here last spring my children were all still in California so I was in the office like 20 hours a day. We spent a lot of time together just talking and sometimes shooting but mostly just talking and going out to lunch. Ken, we connect on a lot of levels. She’s really into her faith—which is growing and I’m really into my faith—we share scripture with each other. I think she appreciates that I have invested in her as a person and I don’t just love her because she scores 18 points a game, I love her because she is a great person. I love how much she loves the game. She loves this game so much. She always wants to be better, she’s always training.”
The family factor has been huge.
“She’s a great player, she always has been but I think she’s opening up now more,” Coach noted. “With me, I think she’s extremely coachable, she’s trying to do better, and be better and to continue to grow her game, I think she feels genuine love from Huggy and her family, they’ve been there to support her. Their parents are here every game. Spending time with my children, she has them at my house at least once a week, they go to ice cream, they go to the movies, they go to Chuck E. Cheese, they just hang out and make Valentine’s cards, she really loves them and they feel the same way and that’s special.”
It’s special that a young kid can see the same good in Leonard that an elder, storied coach does.
“I think J.R. Payne loves, genuinely loves the people she works with and that includes her student-athletes,” Barry said. “She has so much warmth and love to give, I would say L-O-V-E, in the spirit of Valentine’s Day week, when those kids know that she cares about them and love them to that level, they’re gonna run through a wall for her and that’s the biggest difference (for Leonard).”
What’s clear is that Leonard now has the support necessary to shoulder the load and take the next step to unheralded greatness.
“The coaching change has made it easier because it’s separated the seasons,” she entailed. “Being able to separate from that and Ceal Barry and how good they were, that’s in the past, and last year was really bad, and that happens, but living in the present and understating that not everything is going to be golden or shine, is how we focus. It was awful last year, it was the worst year of my life, for me personally because I couldn’t enjoy anything because basketball is such a big part of who I am, it was tough, but using that now and being able to look back and now I’m thankful for it, I’m happy we all had to go through that so we never ever have to feel like that again.”
Shoot around wraps up and Leonard heads off to team meal. She comes back full, but hungry, with three hours to wait. She sits down to do this very interview in a hallway outside the locker room of her home stadium. While she talks about the family of Colorado basketball she can’t help but to stop and say hi to the security guards as they walk in for work. She even stops the questioning to say hello to the person who mops the floor at the Coors Events Center.
Two hours before the game her eyes change, her smirk turning serious with targets in mind. She is the first on the court together with Huggins once more.
The shots and pregame go by like a blur. She’s lost on the court, she’s a natural. It’s beautiful.
10 minutes before the game, she maneuvers to center court to meet the night’s officials and shake hands of the Beavers’ leaders. One of Oregon State’s players in the meeting is Sydney Wiese, just one of the many terrific players in the Pac that Leonard has to go toe-to-toe with on every single night.
Wiese an all Pac-12 player, and an All-America Team Honorable Mention, led the Beavers to their deep NCAA tournament run in 2016.
It’s tip-off time and after the teams trade possessions Leonard gets the Buffaloes on the board first with an athletic, stealthy and strong finish that draws her a foul. She completes the three-point play. A few minutes later she has another special finish to keep Colorado ahead.
It’s Leonard drives that makes one question how she can take her somewhat undersized frame to the lane with such little regard. The answer is: She’s always taken her own path.
“My Dad, he loves CSU, he’s still a donor,” she said letting out a slight chuckle. “My dad loves basketball so I’m like his favorite thing in the world. When I picked Colorado I thought he’d be like, ‘of course you did that,’ but he has been the most supportive person about it which surprised me a little bit. At the same time, my parents went to CSU and I don’t want to follow in their footsteps, my sisters go to Mizzou and play basketball and it would be great to see them every day but that’s what you go home for. Here I can chase my own dreams and be my own person, my family is so important to me but I’m here to chase my dreams and they support me, which is really cool. But my parents going to Colorado State gave me an even bigger incentive to be like, ‘okay I’m a Buffalo, so it’s too bad you had to go to Fort Collins and be a Ram.'”
As the game progressed Colorado was down nine entering the fourth quarter. During the last homestand, Colorado was in a similar position before going on a 31-9 fourth-quarter run to come back and close out a 70-58 victory over Washington State. Leonard had 26 points and six assists in that contest but it was one of her set ups late in the game that signaled a growing team. Coming out of the second half she dashed into the paint and dished to Zoe Correal, who hit an easy layup.
This is a play that happens with Leonard and her teammates in almost every single quarter but this one meant something because it was a significant basket.
Earlier this season, Leonard found space underneath the basket to dish to Correal for a wide-open potential game-tying layup with under 90 seconds left. Correal missed the type of layup even your grandmother could hit. Colorado never got back to within one possession and that was their one and only loss of the non-conference slate.
“I will always remember that Wyoming game,” Leonard says. “It was a rough one, especially since it was our first loss and I will remember that pass, I remember Cory (Correal) coming up to me and apologizing 1,000 times. Me and Cory have a pretty good relationship, on the court I’m the one always attacking and passing to her, sometimes I make bad passes and sometimes she misses the layups but I think we both learned how to play off each other a little bit better. I know her weakness and what I have to do not to push her buttons if she misses a layup or (vice versa) if I make an awful pass. She knows I need a tap on the butt sometimes too. The biggest takeaway from the layup (in the WSU game) was that—well thank God she made it because it was a big win—it is the relationships piece of it. She knows no matter what that I believe in her and I tell her all the time, ‘that you can miss 1,000 layups and I will still pass you the ball,’ so her knowing that and me knowing that she has my back, that’s the biggest takeaway. Overall, it shows the improvement of us and the team.”
On this night, against the Beavers, the Buffaloes with an outstanding team effort cut the visitors’ lead to just one. With 51 seconds left on the clock and her team down three, Leonard the game’s leading scorer, even out-dueling the senior Wiese, who had 14 on four threes, had the ball in her hands. She had not hit a three in the game yet, and neither had her team, but she was a stellar 8-of-17 from the field with 18 points.
If anyone was to have the ball and to tie the game, it was her. After all, Leonard won it for CU just the weekend before at California where the team celebrated with passion, and for reason.
“This year, I’ve learned to appreciate the little things,” she said. “The other day we beat Cal and everyone was jumping all over each other and for a second I thought to myself, ‘dang, it’s kind of silly that we’re jumping over a little Pac-12 game,’ but at the same time I thought ‘I’m gonna jump on everyone too because I put in a lot of work and there have been a lot of uphill battles so just little victories are things we should celebrate.’ If we can celebrate the little things we’re gonna start celebrating the big things soon.”
There was no jumping on this Friday evening. Kennedy missed.
20 seconds go by and the Buffs foul Wiese who hits the free throws to ice the contest.
While Wiese is at the line, a stoppage takes place and Leonard catches her breath, the loss seeped in.
She takes a moment and looks down at her wrist.
“Buckets and confidence,” is written on her forearm, accompanied by a smiley face.
Kennedy looked back up and smiled.