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Jaylyn Sherrod, right, is defended by Lesila Finau during Colorado's first women's basketball practice of the 2020-21 season on Wednesday.
CU Athletics
Jaylyn Sherrod, right, is defended by Lesila Finau during Colorado’s first women’s basketball practice of the 2020-21 season on Wednesday.

When Peanut Tuitele and her Colorado women’s basketball teammates had to start wearing facemasks through practice this summer, it wasn’t easy.

“It was very hard, I’m not gonna lie; it’s hard to breathe,” she said. “I legit would just take off my mask just for a gasp of air.”

By now, Tuitele and the Buffs are used to it. Getting up early for daily COVID-19 testing and going through safety protocols because of the coronavirus pandemic hasn’t been ideal, but the Buffs have learned to adjust and focus on preparation for the upcoming season.

“Now that we developed daily testing, we don’t have to wear masks while we’re practicing; only off the court when we’re not in a drill, so it’s really nice,” said Tuitele, a junior forward. “It’s almost back to normal.

“I think the medical staff and everyone who’s been working behind the scenes made it possible for us to be doing what we do today.”

CU began practices on Wednesday and opened its first full week of workouts on Monday.

“It’s been absolutely awesome,” head coach JR Payne said of being back on the court with her team. “We’ve been having so much fun.

“It’s interesting because the basketball court right now is really the only place where we sort of feel normal. Other than the masks, it doesn’t really feel any different than any other ball practice sessions.”

The challenges for Payne and her staff are a bit different, however.

Because of the pandemic, the Buffs didn’t have a full offseason of workouts, so they aren’t in the same type of basketball shape as in the past. Concern for more injuries because of that is on the coaches’ minds, but they also have to get the team ready to play when the season starts Nov. 25, by installing the offensive and defensive systems.

“It’s about balancing that with also just being mindful of how their bodies are feeling after not training at a high level for many months,” Payne said. “I think we’re doing a good job. We’re feeling good. We’re certainly playing hard and very competitive, so things are good so far.”

Payne and Tuitele both said the level of competitiveness to this point has been impressive.

A big reason for it, Tuitele said, is because of the months of training that were lost.

“I didn’t realize until basketball was taken away from me from quarantine how much I took it for granted,” she said. “I could tell from my other teammates, you can just tell how hungrier we are to play and practices are more competitive. We’re talking a lot more, it’s positive. Although a lot of things are happening outside of the world with us in here, it feels like nothing’s happening. It’s just us playing basketball – the game we love.”

Payne are her staff are fueling the competitiveness by turning almost all aspects of practice into competition. There are winners and losers in every drill, including free throws and other shooting exercises.

“It is an extremely competitive group,” Payne said. “It’s also a very mature group so we’re able to compete in a way that is mindful of having a lot of new players, but also mindful of the fact that we need to be able to sort of dig in and finish games.”

The Buffs have to fuel that competitiveness in practice because the non-conference schedule is shorter than usual. Instead of 11 games to prepare for an 18-game conference slate, this year’s schedule will feature three non-conference games to get ready for 22 Pac-12 games.

“I don’t think it’s enough (to get ready), but I think with everything that’s going on we have to make it doable,” Tuitele said. “It’s part of being a college player, so we’ve got to do what we’ve got to do to get the job done. So, whether it’s three (non-conference games), 10, one, zero – whatever it is, we’re going to be ready by Pac-12.”

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