Brian Howell
Brian Howell

Leading Southern Utah by just two points with a little more than eight minutes to play on Sunday, the Colorado women's basketball team didn't look too good.

Then, in a blink, they were up by 19 points and coasting into the finish line of a 75-59 victory.

During the 6 minutes, 37 seconds it took for the Buffs (10-1) go on a game-clinching 19-2 run, they proved why, for the first time, they will be a legitimate contender for the Pac-12 Conference title.

"I don't even think we realize the potential that we actually do have," junior guard Jasmine Sborov said. "That's really a cool thing to be a part of. I do think we're a great contender for (the conference title)."

For more than a decade, teams in the Pac-10/12 Conference have been searching for a way to knock Stanford the top. The Cardinal have won at least a share of 13 consecutive conference titles, 10 of those being outright titles.

Stanford (11-1) is ranked No. 4 this week, and its only loss came at No. 1 Connecticut. So, the Cardinal won't be giving up the title easily.

Yet, the Buffaloes, currently ranked No. 12 nationally, have the goods to end Stanford's streak. They begin their quest for the title on Friday at USC.

This is CU's third season in the Pac-12, and it's the first time it won't go into conference play with an 11-0 record. Still, this team looks more like an elite program than at any point in the past decade.

CU's only loss, at No. 7 Louisville on Dec. 21, was a respectable 69-62 defeat on the home court of last year's national runner-up. CU's defense played at a high level against a potent offense that day.

The Buffs have put up impressive wins against Iowa -- currently ranked No. 22 -- Wyoming and Illinois. As good teams are supposed to do, they've blown away overmatched opponents, such as Alcorn State, New Mexico, South Alabama and Denver.

It's not so much the results that has CU feeling good going into Pac-12 play, though. It's how the Buffs have played.

"Obviously, our offense is a lot better this year," said Sborov, who is averaging a career-high 8.5 points per game. "Any player can go off for however many points in a night. That's hard to scout and that's hard to guard. When you have five scorers on the floor at one time, that's hard to play against."

Sunday's game was proof of that. While it was not an overwhelming performance by the Buffs, that late, 19-point run featured five different scorers, including Arielle Roberson with seven points and Ashley Wilson -- who averages 6.1 points -- with four.

"We feel like we have the versatility in our players and what we have offensively, we feel like we're better offensively this year," head coach Linda Lappe said. "At times, we become a really hard team to guard. We don't have one player that you have to stop to beat our team.

"That's why making sure our defense is at least as good as it was last year is important."

Defense is what got the Buffs to the NCAA Tournament last year, and that defense has been stellar again. CU gave up just 54.5 points per game last year. That number is at 59.5 this year.

Overall talent and depth were issues when Lappe took over the program before the 2010-11 season, and the Buffs had very little muscle in the paint.

Now, CU's talent rivals the elite teams in the country. And, in the paint, the Buffs have several big-time threats, including Roberson, Jen Reese and Jamee Swan.

The Buffs' guard play, led by Lexy Kresl, Sborov and Brittany Wilson, is pretty good too.

CU's deeper pool of talent, better execution on offense and stingy defense all add up to Lappe believing her team can compete for the top spot in the Pac-12.

"You think that way and you prepare that way, and now it's about going out and really, truly believing it and really, truly doing the things that it takes," Lappe said. "That's being smart, it's being disciplined, it's playing hard.

"There's not that much that separates the middle team from the top team, but those little things are really, really important. That's why you look at Stanford. They have those little things; they do those little things. You've got to do them if you want to ... they're the one that everybody has to overtake."

From what they've shown during non-conference play, the Buffaloes could very well be the team that finally overtakes Stanford.

Contact staff writer Brian Howell at howellb@dailycamera.com or twitter.com/BrianHowell33.