There was a time when going to the NCAA Tournament was routine for the Colorado women’s basketball team.
From 1988-2004, the Buffaloes made 12 NCAA tourney appearances in 17 seasons. They won a lot, too, going to the Elite Eight three times and the Sweet 16 three other times.
Those routine trips were long ago, however, which made last year such a remarkable accomplishment. Finally, after a nine-year drought, the Buffs made it back to March Madness.
“I think there was a sense of …oh my gosh, we did it,” CU head coach JR Payne said.
That feeling is gone this year. The 21st-ranked Buffs (23-8) are preparing to make their second consecutive NCAA Tournament appearance on Saturday against Middle Tennessee in Durham, N.C. (5 p.m. MT, ESPNews).
Unlike last year, the 6th-seeded Buffs aren’t satisfied with an invitation to the party.
“Nobody wants to lose in the first round,” sophomore Kindyll Wetta said. “We all know, at least a lot of us that have experienced it last year, we know the mentality going in. It’s less jitters, because it’s not our first time. We’ve been there and done that, lost, and so we have a lot more motivation to be locked in, focused and pay attention to everything and make sure that doesn’t happen again.”
When the Buffs got to the tournament a year ago, they played fairly well, despite an 84-74 loss to Creighton. The Buffs were the higher seed, but Creighton got hot that day and kept it going with two more upsets to reach the Elite Eight.
CU was certainly disappointed with the loss to the Bluejays, but Payne said the returning players were bothered by more than that.
“Those that were there were disappointed (to lose) and disappointed, I think, that we allowed that feeling (of accomplishment) to be present,” Payne said.
This year, the Buffs are eager to stick around a bit longer and they’re hoping last year’s experience pays off.
A year ago, CU didn’t have anyone on the roster that had experienced the NCAA Tournament. This year, five of the 10 players in the regular rotation have played in the tournament and three others didn’t play but were on tournament teams.
“I think what we learned is that we can’t look over the things that we really need to be locked in about,” center Quay Miller said. “If you say we need to focus on this, then that’s something that we need to make sure we get better at doing and not just be like, ‘Oh, yeah, we should be better at that,’ but not pay attention to doing it.”
Paying attention to the details and getting a win in the NCAA Tournament is the next step for a program has improved each of the past four seasons. Before now, CU hasn’t made back-to-back tournament appearances since a four-year run from 2001-04, and the Buffs haven’t won in this tournament since March 24, 2003, against North Carolina.
“We have to build on what we did last year,” Wetta said.
Despite not having an NCAA Tournament win in 20 years, Payne said she doesn’t feel pressure to win this week.
“No, we don’t feel the pressure,” she said. “In fact, we’ve talked about making sure that we just pour into what got us to this point; how did we get here? Those are the things that matter and, yeah, there’s gonna be some nerves being on the big stage, and it’s exciting and all of that, but don’t allow that to distract you from your job, or what got us to this point.”
There may not be pressure, but Wetta said the Buffs aren’t simply trying to win a game.
“I think we’re expected to win a game,” she said. “This year, we were expected – and expecting – again to make the tournament, and we kind of knew we were all season long, just by rankings and everything. So, then the expectation then moves on to winning the first game, second game, and more.”