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Colorado’s Mya Hollingshed, left, dribbles against Washington’s defense during the first round of the Pac-12 women’s basketball tournament at Michelob Ultra Arena in Las Vegas on Wednesday, March 3, 2021.
Colorado’s Mya Hollingshed, left, dribbles against Washington’s defense during the first round of the Pac-12 women’s basketball tournament at Michelob Ultra Arena in Las Vegas on Wednesday, March 3, 2021.
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Despite the challenges of navigating a season during the COVID-19 pandemic, the Colorado women’s basketball team spent more than three months taking steps forward as a program.

On Wednesday night, the Buffaloes didn’t take a step back, but they got a harsh lesson about the difficulty that comes with progress.

Seeded sixth, the Buffs went into Las Vegas preparing to play multiple games in the Pac-12 Tournament. By the end of Day 1, however, they were out. The Washington Huskies, seeded 11th, handed the Buffs a heart-breaking 68-54 defeat.

The Buffs (10-10) still have hope for an invitation to the NCAA Tournament, but more likely is a trip to the Women’s NIT. Brackets for both events will be announced March 15.

“I’m disappointed with the outcome of the ballgame, clearly,” CU coach JR Payne said. “I thought Washington outplayed us today. Our preparation had been really strong, our team has been very focused. We were ready to play.”

The Buffs weren’t quite ready to handle expectations, however.

One of the bottom four teams in the Pac-12 for the past seven years, CU finally broke free from that this season. The Buffs’ conference record (8-8) and finish in the standings (sixth) were both the programs’ best since the 2012-13 season.

CU’s season also included an upset of league champion Stanford – which was ranked No.1 in the nation at the time – and a four-game winning streak to close the regular season.

All of that made the Buffs the favorite to beat Washington and a threat to make a deep run in the tournament.

“When I came in freshman year, this is the goal that we had with the coaches and everyone on the team of we want to get to this place where we have leaders on this team and have everyone excited to play,” junior Aubrey Knight said before Wednesday’s loss. “It’s really exciting to be able to be part of that process and turning around this program a little bit in that.”

Unlike the other teams in the top six, however, CU didn’t know how to play as a favorite. Top-seeded Stanford, No. 2 Arizona, No. 3 UCLA, No. 4 Oregon and No. 5 Oregon State are all seasoned teams that are used to winning.

Despite good leadership from Knight, Mya Hollingshed, Peanut Tuitele and others, the Buffs played tight against a team they beat twice already this season.

Credit the Huskies for forcing 20 CU turnovers and draining 11-of-20 shots from 3-point range, but CU felt the pressure of expectations and a chance to make a case for the NCAA Tournament.

“Yeah, absolutely,” Payne said.

Payne has seen it before. In 2003, she was an assistant coach at Gonzaga, which had a resurgent season. After several years as one of the worst teams in the West Coast Conference, the Bulldogs finished second in 2003 – and then lost in their first game of the conference tournament. The next two years, they played in the WCC title game.

“I’ve been a part of several programs that have kind of gone from sort of the bottom and risen and there is a maturation process that happens as your program is built,” Payne said. “Unfortunately, today we felt another step in that process, so now it’s up to us and how we respond to the adversity.”

The Buffs could have a chance to finish strong in the postseason. A trip to the NCAA Tournament for the first time in eight years would be a huge step, but so would a deep run in the WNIT.

“We just didn’t play like how we normally play and we’re just disappointed in that,” Hollingshed said. “We just have to move forward and look forward to postseason, whatever that may be.”

Notes

CU’s loss dropped the Buffs to No. 54 in the NET rankings. … The Buffs have lost in the first round the last three years, each time by at least 14 points. … Payne said she’s proud of how the Buffs have handled a difficult, COVID-19-impacted season to this point. “They’ve handled it remarkably well,” she said. “I can’t imagine going through all of the disruptions and all of the challenges with any other group of young women. … It’s been very difficult emotionally and physically for everyone that’s played this year and I’m proud to be their coach and hopefully we’ll continue to keep playing.”