As a coach, JR Payne can’t help but look back at moments that might have sent the Colorado women’s basketball team to the postseason this past year.
Payne and the Buffaloes (15-16, 5-13 Pac-12) finished just one win away from earning a spot in the Women’s NIT and there are a handful of games that were in their grasp.
“There’s so many games that you look, and even as a coach you go back to possessions and timeouts I should have called,” said Payne, who recently completed her second season as the Buffaloes’ head coach. “I’m very self-critical after a loss.”
Payne is also the eternal optimist, and while the overall result of the season was not what she wanted, she feels optimistic about CU’s future.
“If we can build on what we were doing for the last month of the season … and continue to grow and blossom and compete the way that we are right now (in workouts), we’re going to be in a great place,” Payne said.
In January, it was fair to question the future of this program. In just over a year on the job, Payne and her staff had revamped the roster and brought in eight new players this past season.
The Buffs were a mess in January, though. For the first time in program history, they had back-to-back losses by 35-plus points. That was followed by a surprising loss at Arizona. That was part of a six-game losing streak.
“It was as bad of a place as I’ve ever seen with a team,” Payne said.
There wasn’t really a flip-of-the-switch moment, but it was after that losing streak that the Buffs began to finally get it.
“The way that our team turned it around was palpable,” Payne said. “If you were to come into our locker room or film room or bus or whatever in the first week of January and then you came into any of those spaces three weeks later, you would not believe they were the same teams. The chemistry, camaraderie, the energy the effort were just night and day different.”
The Buffs went 4-6 from that point. With the exception of an 84-47 loss to Oregon in the Pac-12 Tournament quarterfinals to end the season, the Buffs were competitive in each of those games. They even took a pair of top-20 teams — Stanford and UCLA — down to the wire on the road.
Payne admits that the Buffs struggled early in the year to replace Haley Smith, a do-it-all player and leader who graduated a year ago.
By the final third of the season, however, junior guards Kennedy Leonard and Alexis Robinson and sophomore Quinessa Caylao-Do began emerging as the leaders of the team.
“When you do have a lot of new players, I think eventually things just sort of click for them,” Payne said. “These guys have worked really hard to try to bring people along and try to come together and stay together, but that also does take time when you have that many new ones.”
Leonard, Robinson and Caylao-Do, who will all be upperclassmen next year, recently led a team meeting to go over offseason goals for the nine returning players. The goals included going to the postseason next year, of course, but also team bonding and accountability.
“We all set goals,” Leonard said. “We put the goals on our lockers so that each person can see all the other people’s goals, which is an accountability thing.”
There is significant growth potential in the younger players, especially freshmen Annika Jank, Mya Hollingshed and Aubrey Knight, but it all starts with the veteran trio.
“We’re the upper classmen,” Leonard said. “I know that everybody looks to us. We’re just trying to get everybody to buy in.”
With a strong finish to the season, a solid core of players coming back and talented freshmen arriving this summer, Payne is hoping there’s a lot less second-guessing a year from now.
Forward Janea Bunn, who joined the team as a junior college transfer last summer, will not be back with the team. She was a regular starter before leaving the team for personal reasons during the season.
Another JUCO addition from last year, Jaimie Curtis, will also not return. The 6-foot-7 center played sparingly this past season.
In November, the Buffs signed two high school recruits: guard Cameron Swartz from Marietta, Ga., and forward Sirena “Peanut” Tuitele, a former from Chico, Calif.
The Buffs are currently at 10 scholarship players for next season and Payne said the staff is looking to add more players, eying high school players, as well as JUCO and four-year transfers. Payne did not rule out adding as many five new scholarship players. The NCAA maximum is 15 scholarships.
Knight had surgery for a torn labrum after the season and is expected to be out for four months, but the Buffs are hoping she’ll be ready to go for fall workouts. … Freshman guard Peyton Carter, from Monarch High School, is slated to technically be a walk-on next year. CU signed Carter with the agreement of putting her on scholarship for two of her four years. She was on scholarship this year.