Cliff Grassmick / Staff Photographer
From bottom left: CU’s Kennedy Leonard, Makenzie Ellis, Ariana Freeman, Haley Smith, and Alexis Robinson celebrate the 70-58 win over Washington State on Feb. 3 in Boulder. The Buffs host UNLV on Thursday in the WNIT first round.

Thanks the wonderful world of emojis, Colorado women’s basketball coach JR Payne didn’t have any doubt about how her team viewed Monday night’s announcement that it would be playing in the Women’s NIT.

“Oh my gosh, they’re so excited,” Payne said. “I wish I could show you all the text messages right now. The kids are all about the emojis and all that stuff, and you can just feel their excitement through the phone.

“We’re really happy and just so excited to have another chance to play.”

One year after a dismal 7-23 season, CU (15-15) accepted the invitation to the WNIT, ending a three-year postseason drought.

The Buffs will host UNLV (22-10) on Thursday at 7 p.m. at the Coors Events Center in the first round.

“We really thought we were going to get in, but until you see your name, you don’t know for sure,” Payne said. “Earning this postseason bid is very much a reward for their perseverance.”

This is the first postseason trip for the Buffs since going to the WNIT in 2014.

In their history, the Buffs have been to the WNIT five previous times, going 12-5 overall, including 5-0 in the first round.

Of those 17 previous WNIT games, 13 were played in Boulder, so it’s no surprise that the Buffs get the chance to host again.

“It’s so great to be able to play anywhere, but to play at home is like Christmas,” Payne said. “We love playing in Coors, we love our fan base; we really are confident at home.”

By the time the Buffs tip off against the Lady Rebels, it’ll be their first game in two weeks. The Buffs have not played since a 79-78 loss to Washington State in the first round of the Pac-12 Tournament on March 2.

UNLV finished tied for third in the Mountain West Conference this season. The Rebels are led by twins Dakota and Dylan Gonzalez, who have become social-media celebrities, combining for more than 1.9 million followers on Instagram.

Dakota Gonzalez leads the team with 13.3 points per game while Dylan Gonzalez averages 10.0 points.

As of Monday night, Payne didn’t know much about UNLV, but said: “They’re a good team. Their coach (Kathy Olivier) is really tough and her teams are always really gritty and tough and athletic and scrappy.”


CU is 0-5 all-time against UNLV, but the teams have not met since March 18, 1989. … CU is one of three Pac-12 teams in the WNIT field of 64 (also Washington State and Utah). The Buffs are one of a record 10 Pac-12 teams going to the postseason, as seven were selected for the NCAA Tournament. … If the Buffs defeat UNLV, they will play the winner of Thursday’s Northern Illinois at South Dakota State game in the second round. … The finals are slated for April 1 and will be broadcast on CBS Sports Network. Legendary CU coach and current senior associate athletic director Ceal Barry will be the analyst on that broadcast.

Contact staff writer Brian Howell at howellb@ or