Colorado was clinging to a 48-47 lead over Utah on Jan. 25 when Kennedy Leonard used a lesson she learned during the summer to come up big in a clutch situation.
The Buffaloes’ sophomore point guard had been hesitant to take the open pull-up jumper the Utes were giving her that night in the Coors Event Center. Then, maybe subconsciously, she decided to stop being “stubborn” and took – and hit – an elbow jumper with 33 seconds left that gave the Buffaloes breathing room and an eventual 54-49 victory to snap a five-game losing streak.
Leonard may be called upon for her shooting touch tomorrow, as Colorado faces Washington State in the first round of the Pac-12 Tournament. But that talent is still new to her.
Taking and making pull-up shots was part of her growth during last June when she was a member of Great Britain’s under 20-team. And it showcased, even in a small way, how important that experience was for the Buffaloes’ rising star.
“It’s not a big thing but just being able to look back at that where I practiced my pull-up all the time because I had the chance to,” Leonard said last week. “And then I came into that game and I made the shot when it mattered.”
The experience overseas also prepared Leonard, who was named to the All-Pac-12 freshman team and received honorable mention all-Pac-12 after scoring 12.1 points and dishing out 4.6 assists, for an increased scoring role under first-year coach JR Payne.
Payne, who was hired last March, said Leonard didn’t miss much as far as getting to know the new coaching staff or summer workouts and called the experience a “blessing.”
“I think it really helped her grow,” Payne said. “It kind of prepped her for this season where she needed to score the ball more because on that team, I think she averaged 24 a game or something. That team needed her to score. She was hands down their best player and had to do a lot.
“I think that really went a long way in guiding her into a season where she was going to be asked to score the ball and do more than she had to in the past. It was great for her.”
Leonard delivered this season, finishing the regular season averaging 17.1 points and 5.7 assists per game as Colorado went 15-14 overall and 5-13 in the ultra-competitive Pac-12.
While she has shown and embraced the ability to score in bunches – Leonard scored the final 11 points of the game against Utah and dropped 22 point in the fourth quarter, including the final 20 for Colorado, in an 82-75 loss to Wyoming to close out the nonconference season – Leonard would much rather be more of a facilitator for her teammates.
“She’s really a kid who would prefer to have 12 assists over 12 points,” Payne said. “She would prefer to distribute and that’s more her natural makeup.”
Leonard completely agrees with her coach.
“I don’t know what it is about assists but I would much rather make a nice pass to my teammates and have them make a nice bucket,” she said. “For me, it’s more about the team and I really cherish every one of my teammates and value them the same so I think to give them a little pay off for all their hard work, I would much rather do that.”
That may be one reason Leonard, although only a sophomore, was a team captain this season. Payne describes Leonard as a quiet leader and the hardest worker on the team.
“She genuinely loves the game of basketball and it shows by how hard she works,” Payne said.
The coach gave an example from earlier last week when Leonard was under the weather a bit and had to sit out a practice.
It didn’t go over well with the competitive Leonard.
“She was just so mad,” Payne said. “She’s that player who wants to be on the floor, she wants the ball late game. … She’s that player when the lights are brighter and the stage is bigger, she wants the basketball and I love that in a player and a point guard, certainly.”
She said sometimes her competitive nature doesn’t produce the results she wants as far as being a team leader.
“I’m working to do it in a light that is positive, especially in the heat of the moment,” Leonard said. “As a competitor, if someone makes a mistake or I make a mistake in a game that comes down to one possession I can get flustered and that kind of thing and I think that comes with age and time and maturity.
“I’m just working on that.”
Leonard knows she has room to improve as a leader and has been taking an introduction to leadership course this term.
“It’s kind of cool to see all the different ways people can lead,” Leonard said. “Hopefully by the end of this class this semester I’ll have a little bit more under my belt. And coach (Payne) is a great leader. If I keep following her example, I can become a pretty good leader.”
This past year has been a learning experience for Leonard, and it began in earnest with the opportunity to play overseas. She learned to become more comfortable in different settings – on and off the court – and how to adapt in both.
“It taught me that adversity will strike, but it’s how you respond that matters,” Leonard said.
She also learned how great of an opportunity she has to play in the Pac-12, how great of a support system she has and to be grateful for all of it.
While the present has been good, the future looks even brighter for Leonard and the Buffaloes.