LAS VEGAS – In recent years, the Colorado women’s basketball team has come home from the Pac-12 Tournament looking ahead to next season, or maybe a run in the Women’s NIT.
On Saturday, CU traveled back to Boulder with eyes on a bigger prize.
A humbling 71-45 loss to No. 2 Stanford in the Pac-12 Tournament semifinals on Friday night at Michelob Ultra Arena stung but also serves as motivation for a team anticipating its first NCAA Tournament invitation since 2013.
“I just tell the team anytime you’re playing basketball this late in the season, every time you step on the floor, you have an opportunity to get better,” CU head coach JR Payne said after Friday’s loss. “We are no different and I think when you play a game like this, and if you play against a great team, you clearly can identify some areas that we still need to continue to grow. We very much have a growth mindset as a group so that’s what we’ll do. We’ll watch the film and find areas that we need to get better in order to be prepared for future games.”
CU’s next game should be in the first round of the NCAA Tournament. That won’t be official until Selection Sunday on March 13, but the Buffs’ resume suggests there isn’t much to worry about in terms of getting in.
From 2012-21 (excluding 2020 because there was no NCAA Tournament), 33 Pac-12 teams posted 20 wins in the regular season and had a winning conference record and all of them played in the NCAA Tournament. Six teams hit those two marks in 2020 and all six were projected to make the tournament before it was canceled by the COVID-19 pandemic.
CU hit both marks this year and likely cemented an NCAA spot with a run to the Pac-12 semifinals. Since 2013, 28 of the last 32 Pac-12 Tournament semifinalists reached the NCAA Tournament.
As of Saturday, the Buffs were at No. 29 in the NET rankings, a tool used to set the NCAA Tournament field. ESPN projects the Buffs as a No. 9 seed, even after the 25-point loss to the Cardinal.
Payne has maintained a “one game at a time” approach and insists she hasn’t paid attention to projections. But, she also believes the Buffs have built a strong resume.
“I don’t know what seed I expect us to get,” she said. “I think that we have proven … we won, I don’t know, seven of our last nine games in one of the best conferences in America. We’re deep. We’re one of the best defenses in the country. We rebound.
“I think we should get a high seed and I think that we’ve earned that. I think the NCAA Tournament wants to see teams that are playing well at the end of the season, not a team that just started well and kind of fizzled through conference. We are a team that has risen over the last month and a half and I think that’s earned a very good seed.”
CU started strong this season at 13-0 and was the last remaining undefeated team in the country. Then, the Buffs fizzled, going 1-6. Since then, the Buffs have been on a roll.
In their last 10 games, the Buffs are 8-2 with the only losses coming against Stanford. In that stretch, the Buffs have defeated Oregon (No. 12 in NET), Arizona (No. 18) and UCLA (No. 42).
Like most teams, the Buffs have some work to do to get ready for the postseason.
Stanford, the defending national champion and one of the favorites to win the title this year, exploited some of the Buffs’ weaknesses.
In particular, the Cardinal once again locked down the CU shooters. The Buffs have played Stanford three times this season and those are their three worst shooting games of the season. Friday was actually the best of the three, with the Buffs hitting 30.6 percent of their shots.
More importantly, the Buffs have nearly two weeks off and will take some time to rest and get healthy when they get back to Boulder. Three games in three days this week took a heavy toll on the Buffs, especially with starting guards Sila Finau and Tameiya Sadler both suffering injuries.
“Everybody on this team needs a little bit of break just to be able to go home, recollect, take a deep breath, let the emotions level out,” freshman Kindyll Wetta said. “And then get back at it for the NCAA Tournament, because that’s something that we’re gonna need to figure out before we head into that.”