March 25, 2023
Despite falling in Sweet 16, sun shines brightly on Colorado Buffaloes
'You see the tenacity and the toughness and the fearlessness'
SEATTLE — Official Melissa Barlow raised her hand to call a foul with 52 seconds left in the fourth quarter. It was the fifth personal foul on Colorado guard Jaylyn Sherrod, which meant that her night, and ultimately her season, were done. She didn’t frown or complain; in fact, she smiled, went right over to the bench, and high-fived her head coach, JR Payne, and all her teammates.
The sixth-seeded Buffaloes fell on Friday to the second-seeded Iowa Hawkeyes, 87-77, in the Sweet 16 of the NCAA Tournament. However, the Buffaloes, like Sherrod, have a lot to be smiling about after the season they had.
Coming off their first NCAA Tournament appearance since 2013 and a first-round upset loss to Creighton last season, the expectations for the Buffaloes weren’t high heading into 2022-23. Colorado was picked eighth in the Pac-12 after losing first-round WNBA Draft pick Mya Hollingshed. It only returned one double-digit scorer, losing two starters to graduation and another to the transfer portal. But you wouldn’t have known any of that from the Buffaloes’ play.
Colorado opened the season winning 11 of 14 games. It then won six straight conference games before falling on the road to Stanford. It only lost three more games in Pac-12 play and headed into the conference tournament as the No. 3 seed — the highest in program history since joining the Pac-12. Despite falling in the conference tournament semifinals, Colorado’s strong resume earned it a No. 6 seed in the NCAA Tournament.
“Yeah, I am so proud,” Payne said after the loss to Iowa. “I love my team so much. You guys see the basketball; you see the tenacity and the toughness and the fearlessness. I see young women that celebrate each other in their hardest moments. I see young women that pour into their studies and their academics. As hard as they play, they study just as hard. Think how hard that is to pour all of your heart and soul into basketball and school and being in our community and celebrating the other sports on our campus. I absolutely love our team. I love what the young women in our program are about. I just couldn’t be more proud to be the head coach at the University of Colorado.”
Nearly one-third of people filling out brackets picked No. 11 seed Middle Tennessee State to upset the Buffs in their first-round matchup. The Buffs proved people wrong and dispatched the Blue Raiders with ease, 82-60. Then, in their second-round matchup at Duke, Colorado scrapped and clawed out a 61-53 overtime victory to advance to their first Sweet 16 in 20 years.
Even in the loss to Iowa, the Buffs showed their toughness and grit. After falling behind by 10 early in the first quarter, Colorado went on an 18-7 run to cut the deficit to one after one quarter. It played a strong second quarter and took a one-point lead into the half. It also cut an 11-point lead down to four late but couldn’t complete the comeback. Colorado’s fight and tenacity shows how much the program has grown since Payne took over.
The grit that Colorado shows comes from the strong effort it puts in every night on the defensive end. Since Payne came to Colorado, the Buffaloes have made their imprint on the defensive side of the ball. This season, they ranked 46th nationally in points allowed per 100 possessions and 20th in steal rate. When you watch them play, you can see how much pride they take on the defensive side of the ball and how every stop fuels them.
“Honestly, it was just about setting the standard, and I think that’s something over my four years with Coach J [Payne] that we’ve always talked about, just setting a standard of excellence and wanting to be excellent every day,” said Sherrod. “I don’t think that’s going to change. Well, at least as long as Coach J is here, it’s not going to change because that’s what she preaches in practice.
“Yeah, this team will definitely be back. I think everybody knows who Colorado is now and we have earned some respect behind our name, and … the team will be hungry.”
The defensive intensity for the Buffs this season started with Sherrod, who was not only their perimeter stopper but also their emotional leader. She left everything on the floor every single night, often getting banged up diving for loose balls or battling for rebounds.
Sherrod’s intensity on defense was only matched by her speed on offense. Iowa head coach Lisa Bluder called her “hard to guard because she is so fast.”
Sherrod has been at Colorado since the beginning of the rebuild under Payne and is a great example of what the program wants to be. Sherrod helped create the defensive mindset and culture that is now in place at Colorado and set an example for her teammates. She’s made everybody around her want to work harder and push for more.
“I think that what this program is built on is just getting players who really want to work hard,” guard Frida Formann said postgame. “Coach always tells us we don’t get the No. 1 recruits or whatever and we don’t need that, either, because we have that mentality of will over skill and we’re going to work hard and we’re going to stay together, and I think that’s very, very valuable. Basketball’s a team sport, so you need to build a great team, and I think that’s what we’ve done.”
The Buffaloes also had players step into bigger roles this year. Center Quay Miller went from being the Pac-12 Sixth Player of the Year in 2022 to a full-time starter and All-Pac-12 Honoree. Formann bounced back from a rough sophomore season to average double figures and knock down almost 40% of her threes. Center Aaronette Vonleh, a transfer from Arizona, contributed 12 points and four rebounds per game in her first season in Boulder.
All of those players flourished in the Buffaloes’ system because they bought into the idea of defense first and playing tough and as a team. They all grew and developed under the Buffs’ player development program. Their growth allowed them to contribute offensively, but their suffocating defense elevated the Buffaloes to another level.
“I just told the team, [the loss is] nothing to hang our heads down about,” said Sherrod. “This was a great season. We answered a lot of questions that people had about us.”
Despite falling in the Sweet 16, Payne has put Colorado back on the national map. Back-to-back NCAA Tournament appearances and consistent success in the Pac-12 has made the Buffs a team that people not only know but fear.
“We learned so much from last year’s experience to this year’s experience,” said Payne. “Going to the NCAA Tournament for the first time in such a long time last year and losing to Creighton, who was such a great team, but still the bitter disappointment of losing in the first round, we really carried that throughout [this] year. Not the disappointment, but just the desire to not let it happen again and to really work daily. I mean, Jaylyn said it here earlier: We work towards excellence every single day, and I think that was driven by last year’s first-round loss.”
The future is bright for Colorado. Next season, it could return up to four starters, depending on what Sherrod and Miller decide to do with their extra year of eligibility. Regardless, the momentum that the players from this year’s team have started doesn’t look like it will slow down any time soon.
“It’s wonderful to get to the Sweet 16. I think we’ll be disappointed that we didn’t make it to the Elite Eight because, again, we want to be great and we were great this year,” said Payne. “But I think we’ll take that daily and we’ll talk about ways that we could have, should have, been one round deeper or whatever. The makeup of these players and the makeup of our program is just toughness [and] grit. We want to outwork people, and I don’t expect that would ever change.”
Written by Matthew Walter
Matthew Walter covers the Las Vegas Aces, the Pac-12 and the WCC for the Next. He is a former Director of Basketball Operations and Video Coordinator at three different Division I women's basketball programs.