DURHAM, N.C. — Colorado women’s basketball coach JR Payne still remembers recruiting Aaronette Vonleh during the COVID pandemic, when Zoom calls were the way to recruit.
“She probably said three words on our Zoom and we got off the call and we’re like, ‘Was that good? Like, did she like us?’” Payne recalled with a laugh on Sunday.
Yeah, Vonleh liked the CU coaching staff. And, OK, she chose to sign with Arizona when coming out of high school. But Vonleh is now a Buffalo and one of the keys to them having a shot to beat Duke on Monday night in the second round of the NCAA Tournament (7 p.m. MT, ESPNU).
“She’s thrived and blossomed all year long and really grown in so many ways,” Payne said. “The basketball is just part of it, but growing as a student and just all of it. We really feel like her best basketball is ahead of her. We believe so strongly in what she’s capable of doing and what she’s capable of being to this team. We’re gonna just continue to watch her grow. It’s pretty exciting though.”
During Vonleh’s one season at Arizona, the 6-foot-3 center played in only 17 games and she got most of her playing time in non-conference games. Once Pac-12 play started, she played in just 23 minutes the rest of the year. Vonleh played three minutes in an NCAA Tournament first-round win against UNLV and didn’t get off the bench in a second-round loss to North Carolina.
For CU, Vonleh is a starter who plays an average of 26 minutes per night. She had 11 points, three rebounds, two assists and a block in Saturday’s 82-60 rout of Middle Tennessee.
CU’s second-leading scorer (12.1 points per game) and rebounder (4.5 per game), Vonleh is grateful to CU for giving her a shot after she entered the transfer portal a year ago.
“I’d say the main thing is (coaches) just believing in me,” she said. “They obviously saw that I had the ability to be good so that’s why they recruited me. And I’m just living up to that (and they are) constantly giving me advice and coaching me up, giving me confidence.”
Knowing Vonleh from her days at West Linn (Ore.) High School, Payne said “she became a huge priority immediately” after she entered the transfer portal.
For the sixth-seeded Buffs (24-8) to upset the third-seeded Blue Devils (26-6), they’ll need Vonleh to play well and have no doubt she will.
“In preseason, we were doing some just like pickup runs, and I knew immediately she was going to be one of the best, if not the best post player in the Pac-12,” guard Kindyll Wetta said. “She’s definitely proved that this season for sure. And she’s been a great person to play with and also to have on the team.”
Duke features a deep rotation that keeps the legs fresh throughout games. Ten players average at least 13.5 minutes per game, with eight of them having played in all 32 games (and another in 31).
CU’s rotation isn’t as deep, but the bench could be crucial in keeping up with the Blue Devils. CU has eight players averaging 12.2 minutes and those eight have missed only three games combined. Two others, Brianna McLeod (9.6 minutes per game) and Charlotte Whittaker (8.2) are key off the bench at times, too.
“I thought our bench played great (against Middle Tennessee) and we’ll expect that again (against Duke),” Payne said. “I think anyone that steps on the floor on both teams probably needs to be ready to play. However long, however tough, they’re going to need to be ready to play. For us, everyone is really confident in their role, confident in what they know they can bring to the team to help us be successful. So I trust that every single one of our players will be very ready to play when their name is called.”
CU’s bench outscored MTSU, 24-19, while also racking up 16 rebounds, 11 assists and four steals.
As of Monday, CU wasn’t sure if it would have one member of the rotation. Freshman Jada Wynn was injured late in the MTSU game and she’s day-to-day.
Duke coach Kara Lawson with her thoughts on the Buffs:
“They’re really good. I mean, they can score, and they can guard. They’ve got size, and they’ve got really good quickness and athleticism. I mean, they’re complete. … We have to be very sharp in our execution. There’s no way around it. You just can’t have too many plays on each end where you’re making mistakes because they capitalize on them. And that’s what happens when you play good teams.”