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Women’s basketball: Aiming to get tougher, CU Buffs set to battle Tennessee

University of Colorado Boulder's Quay Miller shoots on New Mexico State's Fame Thiam on Nov. 7, 2022.(Cliff Grassmick/Staff photographer)
University of Colorado Boulder’s Quay Miller shoots on New Mexico State’s Fame Thiam on Nov. 7, 2022.(Cliff Grassmick/Staff photographer)

At 4-1, the Colorado women’s basketball team is off to a good start.

It’s not nearly as good as it should be, however.

CU has lacked toughness in the early going of the season, which isn’t good for a team that relies on toughness.

“I think that’s where you can feel our frustration from some veterans, as well as our coaching staff,” CU head coach JR Payne said. “We don’t ever have the most depth, the most athleticism, the most size, the most talent. But, that doesn’t matter if you’re the tougher team, so we’ve got to work daily to fix that.”

Payne and her staff are working to rediscover that toughness as the Buffs visit No. 23 Tennessee on Friday in Knoxville, Tenn. (5 p.m. MT, SEC Network).

“We just we just need to toughen up, to be honest,” Payne said. “Is this hard what we’re doing – playing Division I, Power 5 basketball? Yes. But, we just need to be better, honestly, top to bottom. Be more disciplined, hold your ground.

“As a group, we just have a long ways to go and culturally that’s who we are. We’re tough, we’re fearless, we don’t back down – all of those things, and we’re not there yet.”

CU beat Air Force, 71-63, on Saturday, but it wasn’t a sharp performance for the Buffs, who had to rally in the second half on their home court. CU has traditionally routed the Falcons, but it was a one possession game in the final minute.

That win came three days after an 86-85 overtime loss at Texas Tech. CU coughed up a 16-point lead in that defeat.

“I definitely think we need to just lock in and just focus up,” senior Quay Miller said. “I think that our biggest competitor is ourselves. We just need to work on the things that are in our control, regardless of what refs we get or who we face might. … It’s just about how we approach the game, how we approach shoot-around and our practices prior to the game.”

The approach Wednesday before boarding a plane for Tennessee was for coaches to get on the team about toughening up. That will be tested Friday against one of the most tradition-rich programs in women’s basketball.

Although the last of Tennessee’s eight national titles (and its last Final Four appearance) came in 2008, it has remained one of the better programs in the country. The NCAA began sanctioning women’s sports in 1981-82 and the Lady Vols have played in every NCAA Tournament ever contested.

So far this year, the Lady Vols (2-4) are off to a slow start and they take a two-game losing streak into Friday’s game, but Payne knows the challenge ahead of her team.

“It’s a Pac-12 type game with really great athletes, really great size, really great skill, really great coaching in a tough environment,” Payne said. “We’re definitely excited for that opportunity.”

Tennessee has drawn more than 7,500 fans to its first two home games, and Miller said it’s the type of challenge the Buffs need at this point.

“I’m very excited just so my team can put on what we’re really about; how good we actually are,” she said. “After we just played Air Force and we didn’t play our best basketball, (it will be good) playing against a good team and seeing our progress and just coming in with a chip on our shoulder.

“I’m definitely excited just because we’re playing on their court, it’s a holiday game and I know my energy is gonna be really high. I’m ready to see what my team and I are going to do.”

Before returning to Boulder, CU will play at Chicago State on Sunday. That will be a challenge in its own right. The Cougars are 0-6 and have drawn 100 or less fans to their three home games.

“I think that’ll be the biggest challenge is just it’ll probably be a real contrast of styles from Friday night to Sunday afternoon,” Payne said. “Plus you add in the travel across country, flying between, and then play an early game. All of that is yet another challenge, but that’s why we created a schedule that we knew would challenge us in a variety of ways.

“It’ll be great to see how we respond and just how we’re locked in and focused and ready to do our job.”

CU Buffs women’s basketball at No. 23 Tennessee Volunteers

TIPOFF: Friday, 5 p.m. MT, Thompson-Boling Arena in Knoxville, Tenn.

TV/RADIO: TV — SEC Network. Radio — KHOW 630 AM

RECORDS: Tennessee 2-4; Colorado 4-1.

COACHES: Tennessee — Kellie Harper, 4th season (65-31; 350-239 career); Colorado — JR Payne, 7th season (98-85; 199-198 career)

KEY PLAYERS: Tennessee — G/F Tess Darby, 6-1, Jr. (6.5 ppg, 2.8 rpg); G Jordan Horston, 6-2, Sr. (13.4 ppg, 5.2 rpg, 2.4 apg, 1.2 spg); F Rickea Jackson, 6-2, Sr. (17.7 ppg, 6.5 rpg, 1.7 apg); C Tamari Key, 6-6, Sr. (8.3 ppg, 3.7 rpg); G Jasmine Powell, 5-6, Sr. (10.5 ppg, 3.3 rpg, 4.7 apg). Colorado — G Frida Formann, 5-11, Jr. (11.8 ppg, 3.2 rpg, 1.4 apg, 1.6 spg); G Tayanna Jones, 6-1, Sr. (8.4 ppg, 6.2 rpg, 1.6 apg); C Quay Miller, 6-3, Sr. (17.2 ppg, 10.4 rpg, 1.4 apg, 1.6 spg); G Jaylyn Sherrod, 5-7, Sr. (11.4 ppg, 2.4 rpg, 5.2 apg, 3.0 spg); C Aaronette Vonleh, 6-3, So. (7.2 ppg, 3.2 rpg, 1.4 apg); G Kindyll Wetta, 5-9, So. (5.8 ppg, 1.6 rpg, 3.0 apg, 1.6 spg).

NOTES: CU hits the road after a 71-63 home win against Air Force on Saturday. … Under Payne, the Buffs are 5-41 against teams ranked in the Associated Press Top 25, including 0-21 on the road. … In their history, the Buffs are 11-105 against AP Top 25 teams on the road, including a current 49-game losing streak. CU’s last road win against a Top 25 opponent was in the state of Tennessee, a 62-51 win at then-No. 20 Vanderbilt on Dec. 9, 2007. … CU is 1-3 all-time against Tennessee, but the last meeting came on March 22, 1997, during the NCAA Tournament. CU won the first meeting between the programs, 78-60, on Dec. 8, 1981, in Boulder. … CU’s only other trip to Knoxville came on Dec. 20, 1993, when the Buffs lost 86-82 in overtime. … Tennessee is tied for No. 23 in the Associated Press poll this week, dropping 12 spots from a week ago. The Lady Vols were at No. 5 in the preseason poll. … The Lady Vols went 1-2 at the Battle 4 Atlantis in the Bahamas last weekend, falling to UCLA and Gonzaga in their last two games. … Tennessee is 1-1 at home this season. … As a player, Harper was a point guard who helped the Lady Vols win three national titles. … Harper is one of only two coaches to guide four D-I teams to the NCAA Tournament (Western Carolina, North Carolina State, Missouri State and Tennessee).

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