For the first time in 20 years, the Colorado Buffaloes have the reached the Sweet Sixteen of the NCAA Tournament. The 6th-seeded Buffs upset the 3rd-seeded Duke Blue Devils in overtime, 61-53, in a physical matchup that JR Payne’s team is built to win.
The Buffs’ frenetic play must have shocked the Blue Devils, as they raced out to a 15-2 lead after the first five minutes. Quay Miller got going early on, scoring 9 of those 15 points and assisting Aaronette Vonleh for another deuce. It seems that she’s fully back to herself after slumping the last few weeks. After Quay, it was Jaylyn Sherrod’s turn to cut through the Duke defense. She is an absolute blur with the ball and had a few layups that were unguardable, including a filthy spin move early in the second quarter. Of course, she saved her best for the final period, as she often does.
Duke did bounce back. After that dreadful start, they hit a couple shots, set their defense, and settled into the game. Once they found a rhythm — or CU lost theirs — head coach Kara Lawson dialed up the pressure and started to force the Buffs into live-ball turnovers that turned into layups on the other end. (The Buffs were doing the same to Duke, but they always do that with Sherrod and Kindyll Wetta causing chaos.) The Blue Devils eventually tied the game at 39-39 after back-to-back threes by Reigan Richardson, then took the lead on a pick-six by Celeste Taylor, who almost had a quadruple-double (!!!) with 10 steals, 10 rebounds, 8 points and 8 assists.
Where the men’s team has historically collapsed in the tournament — Baylor, Illinois, UConn and Florida State, in case you forgot — the women’s team fought back. JR Payne adjusted the offense to get high-percentage looks in the paint, where Vonleh either got the ball in deep post position, or her and Miller were able to clear a lane for Sherrod to cut through. The latter set-up was how CU tying the game, with Sherrod scoring the game-tying free throw with 33 seconds left. (She did miss the and-1 layup, but unlike the 2OT loss to Stanford, this didn’t come back to haunt them, thanks in part to Tayanna Jones making a tremendous hustle play to make sure Duke didn’t get off a last-second shot.)
Once in overtime, it was all Buffs. Frida Formann, the star of their First Round win, hit a contested jumper, Vonleh scored a couple layups, and with their elite defense clamping down, that was enough to ice the game with free throws.
This is a monumental win for Payne and her team. They’ve proven capable of beating anyone on any given night because of their gritty play that upsets opponents’ offenses, the mental toughness to continue fighting, the endurance to play that way for 40 or 45 or 50 minutes, and the focus to hit those clutch shots at the very end.
The Buffs will face the Iowa Hawkeyes in the Sweet Sixteen on Friday, March 24 at 7:30 p.m. (MT). The Hawkeyes are led by Caitlin Clark, the best pure scorer in college basketball, the likely first overall pick in the 2024 WNBA Draft, and probably the best opposing player any of these women will face in their playing careers. (I don’t want to oversell Clark but she’s a basically Steph Curry + Kevin Durant.) The Buffs can slow down Iowa by mucking up the game, especially if Tay Jones can cause Clark problems with her length and intensity.