On Monday, March 20, the Colorado women’s basketball team beat Duke, 61-53, in the second round of the NCAA women’s tournament, resulting in their first Sweet 16 berth in 20 years. The team previously dominated Middle Tennessee on Saturday, March 18, for the first round of the tournament. The Buffs haven’t seen a first-round win at this tournament since 2003.
Led by head coach JR Payne, the Buffs have reached the height of their potential at the right time. Even with lower scoring percentages than usual, the Buffs worked together flawlessly to secure their victory on Saturday and advance in the tournament. On Monday, their next challenge was to upset the No. 3 seed Duke Blue Devils, who had a home-court advantage at the Cameron Indoor Stadium in Durham, N.C.
For the matchup, the Buffs came out hot in the first quarter, going on an incredible 15-2 scoring run. The team threw passes over Duke’s defenders to Aaronette Vonleh, who helped the team score early and grow their lead. Quay Miller was a menace from outside the 3-point line and inside the paint, showing off her versatility and carrying the Buffs through the extremely competitive contest. Senior guard Jaylyn Sherrod outran Duke’s defense and took the ball coast to coast for multiple fast break layups.
The Buffs’ lead began to close as more shots fell for the Blue Devils. The Blue Devils drained 3-pointers from the corner and hit jumpers over the Buffaloes’ defense. By halftime, Colorado only had a six-point lead, 32-26.
After an impressive first half, Colorado lapsed during the third quarter. With multiple players in foul trouble, the Buffs couldn’t keep possession of the ball, resulting in 10 points lost due to turnovers. Duke guard Celeste Taylor hounded Colorado’s guards on offense, resulting in a scoring run that shifted the momentum to the Devils. The high-speed match caught up to both teams during this quarter, as players on both sides began to look tired. By this point, it seemed unlikely that the Buffs would take home a win, and in response, Duke’s home crowd became more rowdy, cheering loudly for their team.
“Even though the crowd was going against us, it was still a beautiful environment,” Miller said. “We thrived off of that. We’ve been the underdogs all season, so having a gym full of people going against us is what we’re used to.”
During the final quarter, a switch finally flipped for the Buffs. Colorado brought their A-game to the court, showing the Devils that Colorado wouldn’t be going down so easily. CU managed to pull back into the lead by the sixth minute, thanks to a 3-pointer from Formann. As the clock ticked down, the game became more aggressive, with both teams in the bonus. Sherrod persistently penetrated Duke’s key and drew fouls as a result. She hit the floor hard multiple times, but she got right back up and returned to playing with even more determination.
“[When] you get pushed down enough, you know how to get up and dust it off,” Sherrod said. “You just find a way. When it means that much, you find a way.”
Down by two points in the final seconds of the game, Sherrod flew down the court once again and made a layup and one. Though Sherrod missed the free throw attempt to go up by one, CU regained possession after a missed 3-pointer by Duke, sending the game into overtime.
After four nail-biting quarters, the suspense stayed at an all-time high in overtime. Colorado and Duke had their highs and lows during the regular time, so both teams had a shot at winning in the final minutes. Duke got on the board with a free throw in the first minute of the extra period, though this turned out to be their only point for most of overtime. Meanwhile, the Buffs’ high-pressure zone defense proved key to putting the game away, as well as Formann’s fadeaway jumpers and Vonleh’s putbacks. With a comfortable lead and strong lock-down defense for the final countdown, Colorado eventually secured their victory, 61-53.
“I’m so unbelievably proud of our tenacity [and] our ability to never wilt,” Payne said. “When things get hard, we dig in, we lean into each other and we continue to fight and to compete.”
The Buffs have made it to the Sweet 16 for the first time in two decades. The next challenge for the Buffs will be All-American Caitlin Clark and the No. 2 Iowa Hawkeyes. Clark led Iowa to back-to-back Big Ten tournament titles and is the second-highest scorer in the nation, averaging 27 points per game. The Buffaloes and the Hawkeyes face off in Seattle at 5:30 p.m. MST on Friday, March 24.
Contact CU Independent Staff Writer Sophie McKeown at email@example.com.