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Women’s basketball: Past experiences fuel CU Buffs heading into Pac-12 Tournament

Colorado's Quay Miller drives against the Cal Bears' Ugonne Onyiah in Boulder on Sunday. (Cliff Grassmick/Staff Photographer)
Colorado’s Quay Miller drives against the Cal Bears’ Ugonne Onyiah in Boulder on Sunday. (Cliff Grassmick/Staff Photographer)

Frida Formann still remembers the disappointment she and her Colorado teammates felt on March 3, 2021.

As the No. 6 seed for the Pac-12 women’s basketball tournament, the Buffs were finally the favorite to get out of the first round. But, they didn’t. Quay Miller and Tameiya Sadler led the 11th-seeded Washington Huskies to a 68-54 upset that night.

“That was a big reality check,” Formann said this week. “I remember going into the tournament, it was like, ‘Oh, we have a chance at the NCAA Tournament.’ You think of all these things that you really want to get done, but at the end of the day, you’ve got to go and win a game against another team who also wants to win.

“Of course you learn from that. That feeling was just awful. Going on the bus the next day, it was awful. So you just never want to feel that way again.”

This week, the third-seeded Buffs (22-7) will hope to avoid that feeling. The Pac-12 tournament kicks off Wednesday at Michelob Ultra Arena.

For the first time in 10 years, the Buffs have a first-round bye and won’t play until Thursday. Their opponent – either sixth-seeded USC or 11th-seeded Oregon State – will be aiming to pull an upset of the Buffs.

“I think losing to UW helped them realize we gotta come prepared, whether we have a bye or not,” said Miller, who transferred to CU with Sadler a few months after that 2021 game. “I think that’s what also helped us with last year’s games.”

As the No. 5 seed a year ago, the Buffs had a much difference experience in Vegas than the year before. They knocked off Washington in a first-round rematch and then upset Arizona to reach the semifinals, where they lost to Stanford.

Including Miller and Sadler’s experience with Washington in 2021, CU has a roster filled with players who have won games in this tournament and CU head coach JR Payne believes that can help her team this week.

“I think it’s a huge advantage because the tournament does feel different,” she said. “Before (last year), we were one of those teams that was like, ‘OK, it’s a new season. We’re seed 10 or 12 – or whatever it was – and it’s a fresh start, let’s go for it, nothing to lose.’ That is a very real thing and people latch on to that, and that’s why there’s so many upsets, I think, partly because teams have this renewed sense of energy and just belief that they can overcome and beat a higher seed.

“For a group to win there, it takes not just talent; it’s definitely focus, mindset, approach – being able to be locked in all of those things.”

Having a first-round bye is certainly not a guarantee for success. In the 11-year history of the Pac-12 tournament, 12 of the 44 teams that earned a first-round bye lost their first game. The No. 3 has been most susceptible to losing early. In fact, the No. 3 has either lost its first game (five times) or reached the finals (six times).

Formann said playing in the first round helps to calm the tournament jitters, but she and Miller also believe the Buffs are mature enough to handle a bye.

“I think that’s when you say we’ve actually earned this,” Formann said. “We played a really good season, we’re the No. 3 seed for reason. … You feel like you earned it and  there’s some pride to it, but as we say, you’ve just got to be ready when you step on the floor.”

Miller said she’s looking forward to being able to watch the first round Wednesday, but in general can’t wait to get on the floor.

“The atmosphere being in the Pac-12 Tournament is, like, an adrenaline rush, for real, from the time you step foot in Vegas to the time you get to the hotel,” she said. “It’s just all so much fun and I’m really excited to see how far we’ll go and the good basketball we’ll play.”

Regular season co-champions Stanford (No. 1 seed, 27-4) and Utah (No. 2, 25-3), as well as Arizona (No. 4, 21-8) join CU as having first-round byes.

Colorado Buffaloes' Tayanna Jones gets a rebound against the Washington State Cougars' Charles Leger-Walker and Kaia Woods, in Boulder on Feb. 10, 2023.(Cliff Grassmick/Staff photographer)
Colorado Buffaloes’ Tayanna Jones gets a rebound against the Washington State Cougars’ Charles Leger-Walker and Kaia Woods, in Boulder on Feb. 10, 2023.(Cliff Grassmick/Staff photographer)

Here’s a quick glance at Wednesday’s first-round matchups (all games on the Pac-12 Network):

No. 5 UCLA (22-8) vs. No. 12 Arizona State (8-19), 1 p.m. MT: UCLA won the lone matchup of the season, 82-63, in Los Angeles on Feb. 5. The Bruins have one of the most talented young rosters in the conference, with Londynn Jones and Kiki Rice both making the all-freshman team. ASU was just 1-17 in conference play, but that win came last weekend and the Sun Devils have recently played CU and Utah to the wire.

No. 8 Washington (15-13) vs. No. 9 Oregon (16-13), 3:30 p.m.: Stakes are big in this one with both teams on the NCAA Tournament bubble. Oregon was once a tournament lock, but had a miserable 1-9 stretch before sweeping the Arizona teams last week. Washington has played its way onto the bubble with a 5-4 regular season finish and a recent win against Stanford. The Ducks and Huskies split the regular season series. This is the biggest of their three matchups.

No. 7 Washington State (19-10) vs. No. 10 California (13-16), 7 p.m.: The Cougars, led by Charlisse Leger-Walker, are on the good side of the bubble, as they’re projected to be in the NCAA Tournament. They might need this win, however, to secure a spot. The Bears, on the other hand, are looking to extend their season a day or two. WSU won the only regular season matchup, in Pullman.

No. 6 USC (21-8) vs. No. 11 Oregon State (12-17), 9:30 p.m.: This is the highest seed for USC since 2014, when it won the tournament as the No. 5. The Trojans have been a little unpredictable at times, but typically beat teams they’re favored to beat. They swept the regular season series with OSU. It’s been an unusually down season for the Beavers, who have never been seeded this low. They upset Arizona in the regular season finale, however, and look to carry that momentum into Vegas.