It’s been nearly seven months since the Colorado women’s basketball team last played and the Buffaloes haven’t forgotten the disappointment of that season.
Head coach JR Payne said there is still some bitterness among her players from the close losses to quality opponents and the opportunity to play in postseason being taken away by the coronavirus pandemic.
Motivating her players won’t be difficult.
“I’m not having to do anything other than draw up the practice plan and bring my whistle,” Payne said.
Payne got to do that for the first time, officially, on Wednesday as the Buffs got their season underway.
Although the schedule has not been set, the NCAA basketball team is slated to begin Nov. 25 and the Buffs believe they have some unfinished business.
“I think that has really been translated in our competition in (offseason workouts),” junior guard Aubrey Knight said. “I think that you can tell there’s a different energy this year than there has been in the past three years that I’ve been here. We have a lot of veterans on this team and a lot of experienced players, so I think that we are teaching the freshmen, ‘This is how you play at Colorado,’ which I don’t think we’ve ever really had before.”
CU went 16-14 last year, including 5-13 in the Pac-12. That included two excruciating last-second losses to conference power Stanford, as well as close losses to UCLA and Arizona State – two of the Pac-12’s best teams.
In March, the Buffs were practicing in anticipation of an invitation to the Women’s NIT when the coronavirus pandemic caused the season to be shut down early. It would have been CU’s first postseason appearance since 2017.
Despite the early shutdown and an unusual offseason that required many of the players to find creative ways to stay in shape at home, the Buffs opened practice Wednesday with confidence. Since returning to campus this summer, the Buffs have been able to get some valuable work done in small groups, one-on-one instruction and in the weight room.
“We are probably more ready than we’ve ever been, which is a weird thing because we missed the entire spring and a large portion of the summer,” Payne said.
Five of the 15 scholarship players are new to the team, but the Buffs also return a lot of experience. Senior Mya Hollingshed, junior Peanut Tuitele and sophomore Jaylyn Sherrod were regular starters last year, while Knight and sophomore Charlotte Whittaker were part-time starters and key rotational players. Senior Annika Jank and junior Sila Finau also have starting experience and several games under their belts.
“We feel very ready,” Payne said. “I’m glad we have those six weeks to practice and get ready for opponents … but we are definitely further ahead than we’ve been in past years from a competitive, ready-to-go standpoint.”
The Pac-12 has yet to announce its schedule or how many conference games will be played. Payne, however, hinted that the conference slate will be 22games – two each against the other 11 teams – leaving just three non-conference games. The NCAA has shortened the season to 25 games; typically, there are 18 conference and 11 non-conference games.
Finding those three non-conference opponents has been difficult.
“Actually, it has been more difficult than we anticipated,” Payne said. “(Assistant coach Toriano Towns) does our scheduling and he’s working really hard to try to get three local games where neither team has to fly.”
CU has finalized an agreement to play Air Force and is trying to work out agreements with Denver, Colorado State or Wyoming. CU is waiting to hear back from the Pac-12 on the conference schedule before finalizing dates of the non-conference games.
CU is hoping that junior wing Tayanna Jones, a transfer from Georgetown, will be able to play this season, but that is still unknown. As of Wednesday, Jones would have to sit out the season because of the NCAA transfer rule.