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Colorado women's basketball coach JR Payne, center, talks to her team during practice at Climate Pledge Arena in Seattle on Thursday. The Buffaloes face Iowa in the NCAA Tournament's Sweet 16 on Friday. (University of Colorado Athletics)
Colorado women’s basketball coach JR Payne, center, talks to her team during practice at Climate Pledge Arena in Seattle on Thursday. The Buffaloes face Iowa in the NCAA Tournament’s Sweet 16 on Friday. (University of Colorado Athletics)

SEATTLE – The stakes have changed, the opponent is different and the amount of eyes on the Colorado Buffaloes has dramatically increased.

Yet, as the CU women’s basketball team prepares for the program’s biggest game in 20 years, the core of what this group does hasn’t changed at all.

“It’s just a basketball game, so you have to prepare the same way you would (for other games),” CU junior Frida Formann said. “Of course, the stakes are a little bit higher than a regular season game. We all know that it’s win or go home, so you have to treat it like that and really lock it in and you just have extra focus and extra urgency, I think, in games like these.”

On Friday, the sixth-seeded and 21st-ranked Buffs will face second-seeded and No. 3-ranked Iowa in the Sweet 16 round of the NCAA Tournament at Climate Pledge Arena.

It is the first Sweet 16 appearance for CU since 2003, but the Buffs are trying to take the same approach that has led them to Seattle. The Buffs still have the self-confidence they’ve had all year.

“Honestly, I think we could play anyone and we would feel that way just because it’s so in our DNA to just really focus on what we need to do to be successful,” CU head coach JR Payne said during a Thursday press conference at Climate Pledge Arena. “We do that in our preseason training, we do it throughout our preseason games.”

Iowa features first-team All-American Caitlin Clark, who ranks third nationally in scoring (26.8 points per game) and first in assists (8.6 per game). She also leads the country in 3-point attempts, 3-pointers made and triple-doubles (four).

Clark leads a Hawkeyes team that has the No. 1 scoring offense in the country, at 87.4 points per game. They also lead the country in field goal percentage (51%) and assists (21.2 per game).

All of that could seem daunting, but the Buffs are leaning on their strengths – particularly their defense – and their experience in the loaded Pac-12.

“We do pride ourselves on defense, and that’s a big focus point for us,” sophomore Aaronette Vonleh said. “We just have to be locked in on personnel, make players do things that they’re not comfortable doing. And, just be disruptive in general.”

Colorado's Aaronette Vonleh shoots a layup during women's basketball practice at Climate Pledge Arena in Seattle on Thursday, March 23, 2023. The Buffaloes face Iowa in the NCAA Tournament's Sweet 16 on Friday, March 24. (University of Colorado Athletics)
Colorado’s Aaronette Vonleh shoots a layup during women’s basketball practice at Climate Pledge Arena in Seattle on Thursday, March 23, 2023. The Buffaloes face Iowa in the NCAA Tournament’s Sweet 16 on Friday, March 24. (University of Colorado Athletics)

While Iowa is one of the best teams in the country, CU is no stranger to facing top competition.

The Buffs took fifth-ranked Stanford – which features second-team All-American Cameron Brink and third-team All-American Haley Jones – to double-overtime. They went 1-1 against No. 8 Utah, which has the No. 3 scoring offense in the country and features second-team All-American Alissa Pili.

CU defeated No. 13 Duke on Monday and No. 14 UCLA earlier this season. The Buffs also went 2-1 against No. 23 Washington State and 1-1 against No. 25 Arizona. And, in the first round of the tournament on Saturday, they routed Conference USA champ Middle Tennessee, which barely missed the final AP Top 25.

“Every game we’ve run into here in March Madness has just been like something we have seen before and I think we’re really used that,” Formann said. “We just have some confidence going into it, saying that we have seen really good defense that we saw from Duke and from other teams in the Pac-12. And the offense Iowa has, we’ve seen that, too, in the Pac-12. So there’s nothing new to us in that way.”

While CU has confidence from its experience, it also has a great respect for Iowa.

“They’ve always been a team that I’ve greatly admired,” Payne said. “I’ve always greatly admired what they run, how they run it. Sort of the nature of their ballclub is really disciplined, really organized, very efficient, things like that. So nothing new (to CU), but it’s always a great challenge to play team like that.”

Iowa, of course, is loaded with experience, too, including wins against No. 2 Indiana, No. 7 Maryland and No. 12 Ohio State during a current six-game winning streak.

Hawkeyes head coach Lisa Bluder goes in having a healthy respect for the Buffs, however.

“We know that Colorado is going to be a really tough challenge,” Bluder said. “Their defense is very, very good. … I think what is so good about it is they just have really good ball pressure, they’re very active. (Jaylyn) Sherrod is so fast. They have depth off the bench, so they can keep coming at you.”

CU will put its disruptive defense up against Iowa’s prolific offense and take its chances on Friday night.

“I think our team has worked really hard to earn the right to be in a position where we can be in a regional, play a great team like Iowa,” Payne said. “And, we’re just very, very excited to be here and get going.”

No. 21 CU Buffs women’s basketball vs. No. 3 Iowa Hawkeyes

TIPOFF: Friday, 5:30 p.m. MT, Climate Pledge Arena, Seattle.

TV/RADIO: TV — ESPN. Radio — KOA 850 AM and 94.1 FM.

RECORDS: Colorado 25-8; Iowa 28-6.

COACHES: Colorado — JR Payne, 7th season (119-92; 220-205 career); Iowa — Lisa Bluder, 23rd season (491-248; 847-390 career).

KEY PLAYERS: Colorado — G Frida Formann, 5-11, Jr. (11.7 ppg, 3.5 rpg, 1.8 apg, 39% 3-point, 90.7% FT); G Tayanna Jones, 6-1, Sr. (5.0 ppg, 4.2 rpg); C Quay Miller, 6-3, Sr. (13.1 ppg, 8.7 rpg, 1.5 spg); G Jaylyn Sherrod, 5-7, Sr. (11.3 ppg, 3.2 rpg, 4.9 apg, 2.4 spg); C Aaronette Vonleh, 6-3, So. (12.1 ppg, 4.5 rpg, 58.7% FG); G Kindyll Wetta, 5-9, So. (5.4 ppg, 2.5 rpg, 3.3 apg, 1.7 spg). Iowa — G Caitlin Clark, 6-0, Jr. (26.8 ppg, 7.3 rpg, 8.6 apg, 1.5 spg, 47.0% FG, 38.2% 3-point); F/C Monika Czinano, 6-3, Sr. (17.5 ppg, 6.6 rpg, 67.5% FG); G Gabbie Marshall, 5-9, Sr. (6.0 ppg, 1.6 rpg, 1.8 apg, 1.5 spg, 38.2% 3-point); G Kate Martin, 6-0, Sr. (7.3 ppg, 4.1 rpg, 3.5 apg, 38.4% 3-point); F Hannah Stuelke, 6-2, Fr. (7.0 ppg, 4.2 rpg, 61.1% FG); G/F McKenna Warnock, 6-1, Sr. (10.9 ppg, 6.1 rpg, 2.0 apg, 48.6% FG, 39.1% 3-point).

NOTES: The winner will advance to the Elite Eight of the NCAA Tournament and face either Mississippi or Louisville on Sunday in Seattle. … CU is making its seventh all-time appearance in the Sweet 16, but its first since 2003. The Buffs are 3-3 in Sweet 16 games, last reaching the Elite Eight in 2002. … Iowa is in the Sweet 16 for the ninth time in program history. The Hawkeyes are 4-4 in the Sweet 16, last reaching the Elite Eight in 2019. … This is the fourth time Bluder has taken Iowa to the Sweet 16, with all of those appearances since 2015. … CU is 3-3 all-time against Iowa, but the teams haven’t met since the Sweet 16 of the Women’s NIT on March 23, 2017, with Iowa winning 80-62 on its home floor. … Climate Pledge Arena (formerly Key Arena) hosted the Pac-12 women’s tournament from 2013-18. The Buffs went 5-6 in this building in those years. … Climate Pledge Area is home to the WNBA’s Seattle Storm and the NHL’s Seattle Kraken.