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CU Buffs women relish WNIT opportunity

JR Payne’s team back in postseason for the first time since 2017

BOULDER, CO - Jan. 29, 2021: ...
BOULDER, CO – January 29, 2021: Colorado’s Mya Hollingshed shoots over Oregon State’s Jelena Mitovic during the Oregon State at Colorado game on January 29, 2021. (Cliff Grassmick/Staff Photographer)

The disappointment of coming oh-so-close to the NCAA Tournament might linger in the minds of the Colorado women’s basketball players for a while.

Senior Mya Hollingshed isn’t letting that be a factor this week, however.

Perhaps turning one loss into a win would have been enough to get the Buffaloes (10-10) to The Dance for the first time since 2013, but Hollingshed is grateful for the opportunity in front of CU.

On Friday, CU will play Louisiana (16-6) in the first round of the Women’s NIT at My Town Movers Fieldhouse in Collierville, Tenn. It will be the first postseason appearance of Hollingshed’s career.

“We always think about those things that we could have done (to get to the NCAA Tournament), but we can’t harp on things that we could have done,” Hollingshed said. “We’ve just gotta look at things that we can do now to get better to win games in this postseason tournament.”

CU was expected to get an invitation to the WNIT last year, but the tournament was canceled because of the COVID-19 pandemic. The Buffs haven’t played in the postseason since the 2017 WNIT, when Hollingshed, fellow senior Annika Jank and redshirt junior Aubrey Knight were high school seniors.

“It’s the best way that I could possibly imagine it to end,” Jank said of playing in the postseason to end her career. “I’ve always wanted to end in postseason, so I’m really excited.”

While this tournament will be the end for Jank’s career, it’s a significant stepping stone for the program.

“It’s always good to gain any type of postseason experiences to prepare ourselves not only for next year but what it’s like to continue to go to the postseason,” Hollingshed said. “I think this is a good opportunity for us to assert ourselves as to where we are as a ballclub.”

Head coach JR Payne said the disappointment of missing out on the NCAA Tournament can be good for the Buffaloes as they build their program.

“Kelly Graves from Oregon really highlights their run (to the 2016 WNIT semifinals) in his second year as a credit to their success after that,” Payne said. “So many teams that make a run in the NIT credit that postseason experience with preparing their team for the future.”

Each of the last 10 teams to play in the WNIT championship game, from 2015-19, are in this year’s NCAA Tournament field, and Payne hopes for a similar path at CU.

“I think that just speaks volumes to what postseason play can do for your team,” Payne said. “It takes maturity and things like that so I’m excited for us to have opportunity, but I really need our players to see the opportunity the same way I do.”

CU hasn’t played since a disappointing loss to Washington in the first round of the Pac-12 Tournament on March 3. Since then, the Buffs have taken some time off and then spent this past week getting back to the fundamentals as they prepare to make a WNIT run.

“Before the year ends, we want to finish this thing off right,” Hollingshed said. “If we can win and go as far as we can, that’s always the goal but we’re always just focused on making each other better every day.”

This year’s WNIT format is different than previous years in that each team is guaranteed at least two games. The field has been reduced from 64 to 32 teams, separated in four regions. The first-round winners will continue pursuing the tournament title, while the first-round losers will go into a consolation bracket.

Regardless of how far the Buffs go in this tournament, Payne is pleased with the step made by the program this year, and she’s excited to see Jank and Hollingshed get the opportunity to play in the postseason.

“They came here wanting to help build a program and understood that it would take a lot of work and a lot of patience and effort,” Payne said. “Blood, sweat and tears, and both of them have poured all three of those things into each other and into this program. It’s really neat to have that opportunity for them.”