With cake, balloons, a buffet from Pasta Jay’s and big screens showing an ESPN live feed, Colorado’s Touchdown Club was set up for a celebration on Sunday evening.
CU’s administration, donors and boosters were on hand, as were the cheerleaders.
This was a party to celebrate not only the 2021-22 women’s basketball team, but the journey it took to get to the point where CU was announced as one of the 68 teams in the NCAA Tournament field for the first time since 2013.
CU (22-8) is the seventh seed in the Greensboro Region and will face 10th-seeded Creighton (20-9) on Friday in Iowa City, Iowa.
“There was never a time that I didn’t think we would get to this point,” CU head coach JR Payne said. “Do I wish it came sooner? Yes. Do I wish it had been easier? Yes. But I also don’t know that this would be such a joyous moment if it hadn’t been so difficult.”
When Payne was hired in the spring of 2016, the Buffs were only three years removed from their last NCAA Tournament appearance, but it seemed longer than that. They were coming off a 7-23 season, their second losing campaign in a row.
Payne had orchestrated quick turnarounds at her previous stops. She took a struggling Southern Utah program to the WNIT in her fifth year. Then she took over a 10-win Santa Clara team and led the Broncos to the WNIT in her second year. Less than 10 days after that season, she was announced as CU’s head coach.
“If you look at every place she’s been, they’ve gotten better every year,” CU athletic director Rick George said. “I’ve got a lot of confidence in her.
“I didn’t feel like there was a big hurry. I knew that she was gonna get us (to the NCAA Tournament) eventually.”
There were times that didn’t seem possible.
The Buffs were the worst team in the Pac-12 just three years ago, going 2-16 in the conference in 2018-19. That included a 59-point loss at Oregon. Current senior Sila Finau was a freshman on that team and said the NCAA Tournament felt “very far” away at that point.
“How we were freshman year, we weren’t winning that many games, specifically conference games, and those are the games that you need to win,” Finau said.
Payne knew the challenge at CU wouldn’t be the same as at Southern Utah or Santa Clara. The Pac-12 is arguably the best conference in the country for women’s basketball.
“We knew eyes wide open coming here that it would not be an easy turn around,” Payne said. “There were some things that were within our program that we didn’t necessarily know about when we arrived or some challenges that … anytime you go to a new school, there’s things that are easy and there’s things that are more difficult than you anticipate. But the Pac-12 Conference is just so tough that we knew it would not be (easy).”
Early in her tenure, Payne leaned on a veteran core of Kennedy Leonard, Alex Robinson and Haley Smith, who helped the Buffs get to the WNIT in 2017. That was followed by back-to-back losing seasons.
Along the way, several players transferred out of the program or graduated and Payne and her staff took multiple chances in recruiting that didn’t pan out. They were trying to plug holes in a leaky ship instead of building a new ship.
“I think that’s a fair analogy,” Payne said. “We play against people in the Pac-12 that have rosters full of McDonald’s All-Americans. We came here with an understanding of who we want to be, the types of people we want to coach, the types of culture we want to have. But you look around and you’re like, ‘OK, that’s all fine and dandy, but we’ve still got to compete with that.’ So there were some people that we’re sort of trying to plug a hole and make sure that we could compete right now.
“In the end, isn’t it interesting that the group of veterans that we have are the ones that came in the beginning?”
Eventually, the staff focused on constructing a new ship. They built around the current senior class that includes Mya Hollinghed, Peanut Tuitele, Aubrey Knight and Finau. They’ve since added more foundational players in Charlotte Whittaker, Frida Formann, Jaylyn Sherrod, Kylee Blacksten and Kindyll Wetta.
When the staff did sign transfers, they enhanced what was already a good team, rather than simply plugging holes. Quay Miller and Tameiya Sadler (both from Washington) and Tayanna Jones (from Georgetown) have been key players all season.
The process helped CU get to the WNIT last year and take another big step this year.
“We all see the end result, but our players, coaches, everyone that touches our program, what they’ve put into it to get here, it’s just amazing,” assistant coach Shandrika Lee said. “I’m so proud of everyone. Long nights, long weekends, a lot of tears, a lot of pain, a lot of losses. … One thing that I’m really proud of our program as a whole is we just continued to chomp at the bit.”
Payne has led the way, but staff continuity plays a big role in CU’s success. Her husband, Toriano Towns, is the Buffs’ associate head coach. Lee and Alex Earl are the other two assistants. That entire group has been together since 2015 at Santa Clara.
The only assistant Payne has lost at CU is Jeff Cammon, who left after 2017 to take the head coaching job at Long Beach State. Earl, the director of player development in 2016-17, was quickly promoted to replace him.
“The moment I met JR and (Towns), they just do things the right way, so you just kind of believe in that and you just care,” Earl said. “I just care for them as family, so I want the best for them. You want to work hard for them. We’ve been together for so long that I just want to do it for them, for me, for everybody.”
Although this staff didn’t have ties to CU when it arrived, it loves the school now and has great respect for the Buffs’ history in women’s basketball. From 1978-2004, CU was one of the best teams in the country, with numerous conference titles and appearances in national tournaments.
“They’ve been to Sweet 16s, they’ve been to Elite Eights,” Lee said. “So, this is nothing new. It’s just been a while and we’re happy that we can kind of set that expectation so those who are supporting us, the fans, the alums. We just want we want to make them proud.”
They were proud on Sunday as CU made its return to the biggest stage in women’s college basketball.
“It hasn’t been easy, but we’ve had an incredible group of young women in our program that have gotten us to this point,” Payne said.
“These seniors and these upperclassmen chose to come here for this. They chose to come build an opportunity like this. It took a lot of work to get to this point where we really earned our way in, so I’m very proud of them for that.”