Walking off the court at the Mandalay Bay Events Center on March 5, head coach JR Payne had no idea it would be her last game of the season. The loss to USC in the Pac-12 tournament would be the last time she would see her 2019-2020 squad on the court and the last time she would see senior guard Quinessa Caylao-Do wear the Colorado Buffaloes uniform.
Her plan was to give the team a few days off, then get back to practicing, preparing for a potential NIT bid.
That was the plan, anyway.
On March 11, ESPN reported that Rudy Gobert tested positive for the novel coronavirus. The NBA pulled the Utah Jazz and the Oklahoma City Thunder off the court just before tipoff. That next day, the NCAA announced it would be canceling all postseason basketball tournaments. In the blink of an eye, sports ended.
Payne and the Buffaloes wouldn’t get to find out if they made the WNIT. Still, they felt their resume was good enough to make the WNIT and the selection committee hinted that feeling may be right.
“They’re not allowed to say anything and they didn’t, but they said you’re a very strong candidate, so we knew that we would be playing postseason,” Payne said. “Our players worked hard enough and played well enough to earn a postseason bid and we should be really proud of that.”
But at the beginning of the season, expectations were low for Colorado. In 2018-2019, Colorado had just two wins in the Pac-12. Even worse, they graduated their two seniors and significant contributors – Alexis Robinson and Kennedy Leonard. Taking all of those factors into account, the Pac-12 coaches picked Colorado to finish last in the conference.
Instead of crumbling without their seniors from the last season, the Buffaloes rolled to a 12-0 start, staying undefeated in non-conference play. Chemistry and accountability were the themes for that run.
“Our chemistry was just incredible. People trusted each other, they played for each other, they sacrificed on the court for each other.”
Coach Payne said that trust allowed the players to hold their teammates accountable in practice and in games.
“We would see it in practice, like ‘give me a better rep, let’s go we’re better than that.’ In games certainly, ‘I need you to be where you’re supposed to be.’”
Conference play would be tougher. The Buffs ended up sweeping Cal, splitting the season series with USC, Utah, and Arizona, and being swept by Oregon, Oregon State, UCLA, Washington, Washington State, Arizona State and Stanford, finishing with a 5-13 record in the Pac-12.
But the big change between 2018-2019 and 2019-2020 for Coach Payne was the level of competition within these games. Aside from two blowout losses to Oregon, Colorado was competitive in all of the other Pac-12 games.
“We truly had a legitimate shot of beating everyone. The Stanfords, the UCLAs, the Oregon States on the road. I think our team knew that. For the first time they really believed that they could beat anybody.”
Payne said the biggest lesson came from the two losses against Stanford. The first game was in Stanford on January 24, when the Cardinal was ranked sixth in the country. Colorado had a lead with 1.6 seconds left in regulation when Stanford scored to force overtime. The Buffaloes lost by eight in overtime.
The second Stanford loss was the heartbreaker. At that point of the season, the Cardinal was ranked eighth in the country. Colorado had a one-point lead with 27 seconds remaining. Stanford fouled Colorado three times, and with 6 tries, the Buffs could only make 2 free throws. Kiana Williams made a three-pointer to tie the game with 13 seconds left. She came back down the court and hit a buzzer-beater three from half court to stun the Buffaloes.
“When we really reviewed that second game together, we made a lot of mental mistakes that young teams do, and you just haven’t been in that position,” Payne said. “There were things that we did against Stanford: celebrating too early, missing free throws down the stretch, and not communicating on certain things defensively, that we then fixed.”
For Payne, that payoff came a week later against eleventh ranked Arizona.
“We were in the same scenario as we were with Stanford but it was (one week) later. We had really corrected and focused on improving some of the areas that cost us against Stanford, we made those adjustments and ended up with the win.”
Payne says the lessons from the Stanford loss will stay with the team for a long time.
“I still think about it. 25 years from now I’ll still be thinking about it. That really hurt,” Payne said. “You see them really internalize those things and actually fix them.”
That accountability earned Colorado their first win over a ranked team in 33 tries. Colorado ended the season with their first winning record since 2016-2017 at 16-14. Their Pac-12 record was a three-game improvement from last season at 5-13.
With the Buffaloes returning most of their starters next season and bringing in some transfers, they will have more experience to win those close games down the stretch.
When asked if they can be on the right side of those close games, Payne had one word.