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  • New CU coach JR Payne has high fives for Bri...

    Cliff Grassmick / Staff Photographer

    New CU coach JR Payne has high fives for Bri Watts, left, and Lauren Huggins during practice in the spring.

  • Bri Watts, left, and new CU coach JR Payne laugh...

    Cliff Grassmick / Staff Photographer

    Bri Watts, left, and new CU coach JR Payne laugh during a spring practice.

  • CU associate head coach Toriano Towns, left, is head coach...

    Cliff Grassmick / Staff Photographer

    CU associate head coach Toriano Towns, left, is head coach J.R. Payne's husband.

  • CU assistant coach Shandrika Lee works with the team during...

    Cliff Grassmick / Staff Photographer

    CU assistant coach Shandrika Lee works with the team during a spring practice.



Assistant coach: Shandrika Lee

• Shandrika Lee joined the Colorado women’s basketball team in April as an assistant coach after spending two seasons as an assistant on CU head coach JR Payne’s staff at Santa Clara University, where she played a key role in guiding the Broncos to a 23-9 mark last season.

• Lee served as an assistant coach with the University of Oregon women’s basketball program for three seasons prior to her time at Santa Clara.

• A 2004 graduate of Pepperdine University, Lee played in 98 games and averaged 12.0 points per game during her career. As a guard on Pepperdine’s squad, the Waves qualified for two NCAA Tournaments and made a pair of WNIT appearances.

• A two-time WCC All-Academic nominee, Lee graduated with a bachelor’s degree in sports medicine. She went on to earn her master’s degree in kinesiology with an emphasis in physical education and sport studies from Cal Poly in 2008.

Whenever Kennedy Leonard encounters one of her new basketball coaches — and that’s been happening a lot lately — she’s asked how her family is doing, or how she’s doing in school.

“You can tell she really cares about us — all of them do,” said Leonard, who
is starting her sophomore season with the Colorado women’s basketball team. “It’s a different kind of feel, a positive feel.”

CU head coach JR Payne, hired in the spring, has started to build a solid foundation with her players, who, by most accounts, are learning to like and trust their new leader.

“It’s awesome,” said forward Haley Smith, who will be a senior this season. “Her focus is on family and us having good relationships, so she’s really made a point that that’s something she wants to work on with all of us, having that positive relationship off the court so that things translate really well onto the court.”

Payne, her top assistant — and husband — Toriano Towns and newly announced assistant Shandrika Lee have all come to CU after working together at Santa Clara the past two seasons.

“We’re not talking really too big of a picture with them or coming in with any heavy rules and regulations and things like that,” Payne said in April. “We’re really just trying to get to know everybody for now.”

The Buffs are coming off a 7-23 season, but Payne said she can already tell she’s got a team she can work with and build with.

“My overall impression is just that we work hard already,” she said. “People are playing hard.”

Part of that could be the excitement of getting on the court, and part could be the players’ intention to make a good impression on the new coaches.

“Definitely everybody is trying to show what they can do and what they can do with the team,” Leonard said.

Smith said it’s been a smooth transition to this point and, as a veteran leader, she’ll work to make sure it continues to be a smooth transition.

“I think it’s really important just for leadership on the team to completely buy in and preach the same thing the coaches are preaching,” Smith said.

To this point, the players like what Payne and her staff are preaching, and Leonard said it helps that team chemistry was already strong.

“I think it makes it easier for coach JR, because we’re already a team and get along well together, so she can just come in and try to fix the basketball part of it, as opposed to the whole team chemistry,” Leonard said.

With any coaching transition, there’s a risk of players transferring out, but Leonard said she doesn’t believe anyone has that mindset.

“Everybody is here for a reason,” she said. “I think all of us still have passion here (at Colorado), I think all of us are here for the long run, and we’ll see how it goes.”

Brian Howell: