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Women’s basketball: No. 25 CU Buffs displaying similar maturity as Elite Eight squad of 30 years ago

BOULDER,CO:January 29:Colorado Buffaloes' Quay Miller shoots against the USC Trojans' Kadi Sissokoon January 29, 2023.(Cliff Grassmick/Staff Photographer)
BOULDER,CO:January 29:Colorado Buffaloes’ Quay Miller shoots against the USC Trojans’ Kadi Sissokoon January 29, 2023.(Cliff Grassmick/Staff Photographer)

It is fitting that the Colorado women’s basketball program will honor one of its greatest teams this weekend.

In addition to hosting Washington State on Friday and Washington on Saturday, the Buffaloes will host their alumni weekend, with a special tribute to the 1992-93 squad.

Thirty years ago, the Buffs reached the Elite Eight for the first time, led by sophomore point guard Shelley Sheetz, senior forward Mindy Henry and others.

Only time will tell if this year’s team can reach that same milestone, but the current Buffs, ranked No. 25 nationally, are displaying some similar traits, in terms of toughness and maturity.

“I said (at a team meeting) in August that this team reminds me so much of that ’93 team,” Sheetz, now the Buffs’ director of player development/special assistant to the head coach, said in a press release.

One thing this team didn’t have in August – or at least hadn’t yet put on display – was the mental maturity to get through tough games and persevere through ups and downs of a rigorous schedule.

With six games remaining in the regular season, however, this group has developed a mentality and maturity that resembles the 1992-93 Buffs.

“I think we’ve used the word ‘composure’ down the stretch of games a few times now,” head coach JR Payne said. “And I think it all goes hand-in-hand with being a mature group. Nobody points fingers. Nobody blames anybody. They just figure it out.”

A week ago, the Buffs were coming off a disappointing 71-54 home loss to USC. Two days earlier, the Buffs had upset then-No. 8 UCLA in overtime, but failed to bring the same energy against USC and got run out of their own gym in the second half.

After that loss, the Buffs faced a pivotal weekend in Oregon. They had lost five in a row at Oregon’s Matthew Knight Arena and seven in a row at Oregon State’s Gill Coliseum. But, they went into both places last weekend and won convincingly.

“I think that SC loss really put things into perspective for us,” senior center Quay Miller said. “I know we understood the Pac-12 is a conference where anyone can get beat, but I think just having that be so real for us was just like, ‘Oh, yeah, like … we can’t ever relax on any game or take any game for granted, and we can’t ever be tired.’

“I think that was a big thing for us: understanding it’s a quick bounce-back, and each game is gonna be a battle. So prioritizing treatment, recovery and things like that was big for us.”

Payne didn’t yell at her players after the USC loss because she felt the vibe in the room, and team leaders did the talking for her.

“They were really hurt by how they had performed,” Payne said. “I think when they feel that, that’s going to be the biggest motivator. … I’m glad they felt that way and glad that they’re responding.”

The 1992-93 team responded well after losses, too, and kept its focus throughout a sensational season. But, long before this team can even think about the NCAA Tournament, let alone the Elite Eight, it has to stay locked in to what’s in front of them.

Like the Buffs, Washington State is projected to make the NCAA Tournament, got a sweep in Oregon and features one of the best players in the Pac-12 in Charlisse Leger-Walker.

Washington sits in ninth place in the Pac-12, but upset then-No. 2 Stanford on Sunday and is one of the most improved teams in the conference.

CU has opportunities to move up in the rankings, stay in the hunt for a conference title and improve its NCAA Tournament resume, but Miller isn’t worried about the Buffs being ready for each of this weekend’s games.

“There’s not really a lot of talk, like, ‘Oh yeah, we can do this, we can do that,’” Miller said. “It’s just ‘We’re at practice right now, everybody lock in; don’t let (Payne) have to repeat. Focus on this.’ Then, when we get to weights, it’s focus on weights. … We really take everything one step at a time. We never think about what could happen or the what-ifs.”

That maturity has shown up on the court, as the Buffs – outside of the USC game – have played unselfishly on offense and with pride on defense.

“I think that makes for a good basketball team in February,” Payne said.

No. 25 CU Buffs women’s basketball vs. Washington State Cougars

TIPOFF: Friday, 7 p.m. MT, at CU Events Center in Boulder.

TV/RADIO: TV — Pac-12 Network. Radio — KHOW 630 AM

RECORDS: Colorado 18-5, 9-3 Pac-12; Washington State 16-7, 6-6.

COACHES: Colorado — JR Payne, 7th season (112-89; 213-202 career); Washington State — Kamie Ethridge, 5th season (67-71; 150-115 career).

KEY PLAYERS: Colorado — G Frida Formann, 5-11, Jr. (11.3 ppg, 3.6 rpg, 39.7% 3-point, 94.1% FT); C Quay Miller, 6-3, Sr. (14.3 ppg, 8.5 rpg, 1.4 spg, 42.9% 3-point); G Jaylyn Sherrod, 5-7, Sr. (10.5 ppg, 2.7 rpg, 5.3 apg, 2.5 spg, 41.0% 3-point); C Aaronette Vonleh, 6-3, So. (12.1 ppg, 4.6 rpg, 58.1% FG); G Kindyll Wetta, 5-9, So. (5.7 ppg, 2.3 rpg, 3.3 apg, 1.5 spg). Washington State — G Charlisse Leger-Walker, 5-10, Jr. (18.9 ppg, 5.4 rpg, 4.6 apg, 1.7 spg, 38.6% 3-point); F Ula Motuga, 6-1, Sr. (7.4 ppg, 5.9 rpg, 2.5 apg); C Bella Murekatete, 6-3, Sr. (13.0 ppg, 6.9 rpg, 1.3 bpg); G Johanna Teder, 5-8, Sr. (8.2 ppg, 2.1 rpg, 2.2 apg); G Tara Wallack, 6-2, So. (10.0 ppg, 5.3 rpg, 1.5 bpg).

NOTES: The Buffs are on a two-game winning streak as they return home for the first time since Jan. 29. … The Buffs are 9-1 at home this season, while Washington State is 8-1 in true road games, with a current six-game road winning streak. … CU beat the Cougars, 65-54, in Pullman on Jan. 1, but Leger-Walker did not play as she was tending to a family matter. Vonleh had 20 points as the Buffs pulled away in the fourth quarter. … WSU leads the all-time series, 13-9. … The Cougars won the only meeting last year, 63-56, in Boulder on Feb. 4, 2022. It was their second consecutive win in Boulder. … WSU is 2-3 against Top 25 opponents, but 2-0 on the road, beating then-No. 21 Oregon and No. 19 Arizona. … CU is off to its best 23-game start to a season since 2012-13, while Washington State is off to its best 23-game start since 1990-91. … Sherrod leads the Pac-12 in assists and steals. … Leger-Walker is second in the Pac-12 in scoring and assists. … As of Thursday, CU was No. 21 in the NET rankings, while WSU was at No. 47.