March 24, 2024 

Colorado stampedes into the Sweet 16

No. 5 seed Buffaloes take down No. 4 seed K-State to advance to the Sweet 16

MANHATTAN, Kan. — ‘Hello Chip – my name is Willie. Let me reintroduce myself. We knew each other well back in the day. Happy to have you returning to the Big 12 and welcome to what we call the Octagon of Doom. Looks like one of us gets to keep dancing after today. I’ll see you on the flip side.’

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Sunday afternoon, March 24 brought old and new conference foes together for the first time since 2011 to battle for a coveted spot in the Sweet 16. The No. 4 seed out of the Albany 2 Regional, Kansas State, hosted No. 5 seed Colorado in front of a sellout crowd of 10,692 purple-clad fans. K-State has not made it past the second round of the NCAA Tournament since 2002, while Colorado was looking for its second straight trip to the Sweet 16. This matchup had everything fans want in a second-round game — pressure, speed, physicality, sharpshooters, and a sense of urgency from both teams. Each were desperate not to see their seasons end in the Little Apple.

For the second game in a row, K-State was off to a quick start, which was just want the Wildcats needed as they scored the first four points of the game. CU started just 2-for-8 from the field but was able to settle into their pressure defense to be physical against Ayoka Lee, K-State’s All-American center. CU worked to be in better help-side defense and used their quickness inside to get around Lee, tipping passes to cause six Wildcat turnovers. Fifth-year senior Maddie Nolan, a Michigan transfer, knocked down two from behind the arc to keep CU within reach and the first 10 minutes ended 14-14.

“The environment was incredible. Shout-out to Manhattan, Kansas, the entirety community has welcomed us this week, and that’s great. That’s a great basketball environment. But we love that environment. We love being the underdog,” said CU head coach JR Payne.

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K-State started the second quarter on an 8-0 run, bringing the Wildcat fans to life and causing a quick timeout by Colorado head coach JR Payne. CU answered by finishing the quarter hitting six of their last eight shots, including another three by Nolan, who led the Buffs with nine in the first half. They kept themselves in the game by scoring 12 points off 11 K-State turnovers. The Wildcats were paced by 11 points from All-Big 12 guard Serena Sundell, who drained two threes, including a four-point play. Sundell hit a bucket with 0.1 left on the clock to give the Wildcats a 35-33 lead going into the locker room. 

Junior guard Serena Sundell had a big second quarter to lead K-State with 11 points and take a 35-33 lead into halftime.
(Photo credit: K-State Athletics Creative Services)

Colorado came out at halftime firing on all cylinders, swallowing up K-State with their pressure defense, especially in the half court. They held the Wildcats to just seven points in the third quarter, including a drought that spanned over four minutes. The Buffalo guards took over, getting downhill in the open floor and pounding the offensive glass. Their defensive game plan held K-State’s Lee to just eight points in the first 30 minutes on eight shot attempts. 

One of the main reasons Lee was held in check was due to the play of 6’3 junior center Aaronette Vonleh. “I was just trying to be really intentional about getting in the best position to be able to slip around her. I never really look in the steals column when I look in my name, so to see seven there is kind of crazy. But yeah, being aggressive and not letting her get any easy touches,” she said after the game. Vonleh finished with nine points, eight rebounds and seven steals in over 37 minutes on the floor.

K-State head coach Jeff Mittie sang the praises of Colorado’s versatile center. “I think Vonleh is one of the stronger players in the country, but she combines athleticism that you don’t always see. She challenges post entry well. Today, if you threw a pass a little bit to the inside, Vonleh was good enough to go get it,” he said postgame.

With a trip to the Sweet 16 on the line, CU took a 52-42 lead into the fourth quarter. Colorado did not score until there was 3:40 left in the game but their defense held strong. K-State’s offensive struggles continued as they went just 1-for-9 from the field and were held without a field goal for the last 3:20 of the game. 

All-American center Ayoka Lee was held to just 10 points due to aggressive and physical defense by No. 5 seed Colorado.
(Photo credit: K-State Athletics Creative Services)

K-State’s Mittie knows there had been a real chance for the Wildcats to get back in the game. “There was an opportunity there because we did do such a good job defensively in that stretch to make a much bigger run than the four points. But we’ll look back at this and go, the things that we controlled, we didn’t do as well as we needed to.”

The Buffs had 17 steals and scored 19 points off 22 Wildcat turnovers. They not only held Sundell scoreless in the second half but also Lee to just 10 points for the game. They held the No. 4 seed to over 20 points under their season average, claiming a 63-50 victory. K-State finishes the season 26-8.

The intense defensive effort has been part of what Colorado has done all season. “We really pride ourselves on defense. So every day, every practice we are always going at each other. We are always going to be aggressive, attacking every moment, every time on defense. That’s who we are and that’s what we fed into tonight,” said senior guard Tameiya Sadler.

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Nolan led CU with 11 points, while center Quay Miller added 10. Sadler also added her 10 points in 20 minutes off the bench. Their presence on the glass helped turn the tide in the second half, as the Buffs finish with 12 offensive rebounds on the day and a 40-34 advantage for the game.

“When I look at the box score, any coach in the world would love to see a box score like this where you have nine points, nine points, ten points, like the balance on our team is just unreal and I think that’s really, really hard to guard,” Payne said after the win. “We executed some things down the stretch that were really great. Defensively, I thought our pressure was great. We were down pretty big on the boards at halftime and ended up out-rebounding them. That is just grit and toughness.”

Colorado head coach JR Payne and her team are headed back to their second consecutive Sweet 16.
(Photo Mandatory Credit: Scott Sewell-USA TODAY Sports)

Up next for Colorado is a date with the winner of the matchup between Iowa and West Virginia in the Albany 2 Regional. Both teams present different challenges for the Buffs, but Colorado is thankful to be moving on again in this year’s Big Dance. Payne, now in her eighth season in Boulder, could not be happier to take this year’s Colorado squad back to the Sweet 16.

“Any time you can play in front of — how many, 10,000 people, is a great opportunity. Little girls grow up dreaming about these opportunities to play in the NCAA Tournament in front of that many people. Whether they are for you or against you, it’s passion and excitement for the game that we all love so much. So we feel very prepared by our Pac-12 play and then also the game today,” she said with a smile.

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Written by Missy Heidrick

I am a retired Kansas State shooting guard and spent almost 20 years working in Higher Education and Division 1 athletics. I am currently a basketball analyst for television and radio, contributing correspondent at The Next, Locked on Women's Basketball podcast host, WBB Naismith Award board of selectors member and run my own consulting business. I am a proud mother of two and wife to a patient husband who is almost as big of a sports junkie as I am!

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