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IOWA CITY, IOWA, March 17, 2022: University of Colorado women’s basketball head coach JR Payne watches her team go through practice in Carver-Hawkeye Arena in preparation for an NCAA Tournament matchup with Creighton. (Matt Kamph/University of Colorado)
IOWA CITY, IOWA, March 17, 2022: University of Colorado women’s basketball head coach JR Payne watches her team go through practice in Carver-Hawkeye Arena in preparation for an NCAA Tournament matchup with Creighton. (Matt Kamph/University of Colorado)

Watching the Creighton women’s basketball team pull off upsets of Iowa and Iowa State in the NCAA Tournament made Colorado head coach JR Payne feel a bit better about her own team’s first-round loss to the Bluejays.

Not too much, though.

“It doesn’t take the sting away at all, but it does — for those that didn’t know how good Creighton was — it tells the world they really are an Elite Eight type team,” Payne said. “It definitely doesn’t change the way you feel about the game, but they are that good.”

Colorado’s Kindyll Wetta drives past Arizona’s Shaina Pellington during the quarterfinals of the Pac-12 Tournament on March 3, 2022 in Las Vegas (Al Powers/Powers Imagery)

Creighton’s surprising run to the Elite Eight may have validated CU’s first-round loss in some way, but Payne doesn’t want the pain of that defeat to be diminished as the Buffaloes (22-9) turn the page to the offseason.

“We worked so hard to get to this point,” Payne said of the Buffs ending their nine-year NCAA Tournament drought. “Now, it needs to be the expectation.”

Since the loss to Creighton in Iowa City, Iowa, on March 18, Payne said she hasn’t had time to review the game because the staff has been so focused on recruiting. She has, however, had a chance to reflect on what was the best season at CU since 2012-13.

“It was pretty awesome and not because everything was smooth sailing or because we came out of the gates on fire and that was great,” Payne said. “We pretty much saw everything that you should see in a college season. You see winning streaks, you see losing streaks; you see times that you’re playing really well, you see times that you’re struggling. And, how do you respond to the good times? How do you respond to the adversity?

“I love that we did respond when things were not going well. We stayed together, we leaned into each other, we were able to remain unified in what we were trying to accomplish and then accomplish that. So I was very proud of all of those things.”

CU is now saying goodbye to many of the players who helped the Buffs get there. Three starters — Sila Finau, Mya Hollingshed and Peanut Tuitele — are graduating, along with Aubrey Knight, who missed the year with an injury but provided leadership. Sophomore Kylee Blacksten and freshman Kennedy Taylor are transferring.

Payne and the staff will continue to celebrate the contributions of those players, but the roster will have a very different feel next year. Half of the roster will be new next year, but Payne said the seven who are returning can help the Buffs maintain the NCAA Tournament goal.

“I think you get a taste of it and you have a new opportunity with new players,” Payne said.

Payne expects point guard Jaylyn Sherrod to have hunger as a senior, especially after a sensational game against Creighton. She expects freshman point guard Kindyll Wetta to be motivated by a strong first season but a disappointing final game. Center Charlotte Whittaker should be hungry after sitting out the season recovering from hip surgeries.

“All of that is fuel to the fire and if you had players that weren’t super intrinsically motivated, that probably wouldn’t be relevant,” Payne said. “But those three that I mentioned are extremely intrinsically motivated, so they will be ready to work and grow.”

The same is true of Frida Formann, Tayanna Jones, Quay Miller and Tameiya Sadler.

“I think everyone has a lot of room to build on what they’ve done so far in their careers, along with the incoming kids,” Payne said. “We’re going to have high expectations for those (newcomers) and some of them bring a skill set that we don’t really have and desperately need.”

CU has four incoming freshman ready to join the program in the summer and the staff could add as many as four transfers.

The Buffs will get a jump on next season with an overseas trip in August that will give the group 10 extra practices and a few games. (The location of the trip has yet to be determined).

Starting with offseason workouts the emphasis will be on getting back to the NCAA  Tournament.

“We just want to raise the bar and kind of put the screws to everybody like, ‘OK, here’s where we’re gonna get better and let’s attack it,’” Payne said. “Everyone in our program came here to help us (get to the tournament), to help us build, work on our locker room and chemistry, all those things. Now we’re here. We know what that looks like. We must maintain that level of expectation.”

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