In five years at Southern Utah, JR Payne took the women’s basketball program from 10 wins to a Big Sky Conference title.
Then, she needed just two seasons to lift Santa Clara from 10 wins to 23.
Hired as head coach at Colorado in 2016, Payne knew the turnaround may not be as swift, but as she closes the door on her fifth season in Boulder, she is pleased with the direction of the program.
“I thought we took big steps forward on the court, in the locker room, in the classroom,” Payne said of the Buffaloes’ 2020-21 campaign, which concluded last month with a 12-11 record and a trip to the Women’s NIT quarterfinals.
In five seasons with the Buffs, Payne has gone 72-75 while dramatically increasing the expectations going forward.
CU was 7-23 the year before she was hired and it’s been a grind to find success in the gauntlet that is the Pac-12 Conference, considered perhaps the toughest conference in women’s basketball. The Pac-12 is loaded with elite players every year and this year featured the NCAA champion (Stanford) and runner-up (Arizona).
Progress is being made, however, as this season the Buffs had their best conference mark (.500, 8-8) since 2013. They will be a contender for a top-four spot and an NCAA Tournament appearance next year.
“It takes time to build a program if you’re committed to doing things the right way,” said Payne, who currently has two years remaining on her contract. “Not cutting corners, not doing things you shouldn’t be doing. It just takes time to do that.”
Throughout her five years, Payne and her staff have made efforts to improve the roster and culture of a once-dominant program that hasn’t enjoyed much national success in the last 15 years.
Like many other programs, CU has tried to build while seeing several players come and go for various reasons. During Payne’s tenure, 14 players have transferred to finish their career elsewhere, but that’s an issue coaches all over the country have dealt with in recent years as the transfer portal has become bigger.
“That wasn’t a thing (for years) and nowadays it is a thing,” Payne said of the transfer portal. “Roster management is a big challenge for everyone. … Players that we’re recruiting right now are only people that can help us and can contribute, and that’s an important thing.”
Looking ahead to the 2021-22 season, the Buffs feel good about the number of contributors on the roster, especially with senior Mya Hollingshed electing to return. CU’s leading scorer and rebounder – and a WNBA draft prospect – Hollingshed is a 6-foot-3 forward who will be one of the Pac-12’s top players going into next season.
Forward Peanut Tuitele will be a senior next year and she’s coming off her most consistent season with the Buffs.
The Buffs will miss Charlotte Whittaker, who won’t play in 2021-22 because of upcoming hip surgeries, but 6-foot-4 Maura Singer could make her debut after battling knee injuries. CU is also adding Kennedy Taylor, a 6-foot-3 forward who was Class 6A high school player of the year in Kansas after leading Shawnee Mission Northwest to a perfect season.
On the wing, Aubrey Knight and Tayanna Jones are going to be seniors with starting experience. The Buffs are also hoping for a big offseason from freshmen Allysa Lafontaine and Kylee Blacksten. Payne said Blacksten “has a world of potential.”
At guard, the Buffs will be loaded with talent.
Point guard Jaylyn Sherrod missed the second half of the season with a hip injury but is expected to be at full strength next season. She’s a talented scorer, passer and defender.
In Sherrod’s place, Sila Finau, a senior-to-be, stepped into a leadership role and ran the offense well. The Buffs also return Frida Formann, one of the Pac-12’s top freshmen this year and CU’s second-leading scorer. She came to CU as a point guard but wound up playing off the ball more with Sherrod and Finau in the lineup.
Sherrod, Finau and Formann will be three of the Buffs’ top players next year, and Payne said, “I definitely think everyone can play together.”
Throw in the addition of Kindyll Wetta, a Valor Christian star who was the Class 5A player of the year this season, and Payne said, “That’ll be an interesting level of competition I think at that (guard) spot.”
CU could also add players this offseason – the Buffs have three open scholarships – but it’s already a roster built for the type of turnaround Payne has orchestrated before.
When asked if the NCAA Tournament should be an expectation next year, Payne didn’t hesitate in saying, “Absolutely.”