Colorado had no plans of leaving Memphis, Tenn., without the Women’s NIT championship trophy.
Despite falling short of that goal with a 65-56 loss to Mississippi in the WNIT quarterfinals on Monday night, the CU women’s basketball team was able to take a moment to reflect on a successful season that has signs of being a turning point for the program.
CU’s final record of 12-11 overall, 8-8 in the Pac-12 Conference wasn’t stellar, but it was a major step in the right direction for a program that has struggled in recent years.
In 2011, the Buffs joined the toughest women’s basketball conference in the country. At the time, they had a strong team led by one of the all-time great guards in program history, Chucky Jeffery.
During those first two seasons in the Pac-12, Jeffery and then-coach Linda Lappe led CU to a combined 46-21 record, including 19-17 in the conference and a 2013 NCAA Tournament appearance.
It’s been a struggle for the Buffs since then, but this season was CU’s best since Jeffery graduated in 2013.
Remarkably, this potential turning point of a season came during a global pandemic, as the Buffs navigated COVID-19 and daily testing to rally together.
“First and foremost, this is a remarkable group of young ladies to have sacrificed as much as they have for the opportunity to play basketball,” said head coach JR Payne, who completed her fifth season with the program. “They sacrificed a lot of their social lives and where they were living and what they were allowed to do and different things like that.
“I think our athletic department made the same sacrifice. They gave us an opportunity, with the extensive testing and just everything that was built into allowing us to play basketball. It’s just all encompassing; it has been pretty incredible.”
The pandemic shortened the season from what is typically 29 or 30 regular season games to 25. Then, COVID-19-related cancellations – mostly with other teams – eliminated more games. CU wound up playing just 19 of its originally-scheduled 25 games.
Amid those challenges, CU was able to make this a memorable season.
“There’s been some really big highlights in our program this year,” Payne said.
Among the accomplishments:
- CU upset then-No. 1 Stanford, 77-72 in overtime, on March 17 in Boulder. It was the first win over a No. 1-ranked team in CU history. It’s also one of just two losses this season for Stanford, which is the No. 1 overall seed in the NCAA Tournament and played Tuesday in the second round.
- Eight wins and a .500 winning percentage in conference play are both the Buffs’ best since 2012-13 (13-5, .722). CU had been at .333 or worse the previous seven seasons.
- Although the Buffs were expected to make the postseason last year when the pandemic canceled this season, this year’s trip to the WNIT was the first postseason appearance since 2017.
- CU reached the WNIT quarterfinals for the first time since the 2011-12 season.
- Back-to-back winning seasons for the first time since 2014.
- The Buffs had their first first-team All-Pac-12 selection (Mya Hollingshed) since 2018, their first first-team All-Defensive selection (Jaylyn Sherrod) since 2013, as well as an All-Freshman honorable mention (Frida Formann).
“And to think that we were able to do that with only three or four upperclassmen on our team that were eligible to play, and losing our point guard halfway through the year,” Payne said.
Sherrod, an All-Freshman player last year, didn’t play the last 11 games after season-ending hip surgery a couple days after the win against Stanford. In her place, however, junior Sila Finau blossomed and played a major role in the Buffs going 6-2 down the stretch.
The Buffs have just two seniors – Hollingshed and Annika Jank – this season. Although Jank will graduate and move on, it’s possible Hollingshed will return, as the NCAA has granted all players an extra year of eligibility.
CU had eight players average at least 10 minutes per game and if Hollingshed returns, the Buffs could have all eight back next year. Plus, they are expected to return several young players and add a pair of incoming freshmen.
Through the disappointment of Monday’s loss, Tuitele was able to appreciate what the Buffs have done and what they could do in the future.
“We have grown so much within this difficult year,” Tuitele said. “I’m just incredibly proud of our team, and we’re just going to keep growing from here on out because a lot of us are returning.”