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March Madness: Colorado's resurgence relies on grit, no fear

NCAA Colorado Duke Basketball
Posted at 5:26 PM, Mar 23, 2023

BOULDER, Colo. (AP) — Senior Jaylyn Sherrod's emotion-filled post-game interview after Colorado upset Duke reminded Buffaloes coach JR Payne of the time her point guard was interviewed after a 104-46 blowout at Oregon in Sherrod's freshman year.

Undaunted, Sherrod narrowed her eyes into the camera and delivered a message to the Ducks.

"They have to come to Boulder."

The Buffs were in no position to settle any scores back then; the Ducks rolled to a 101-53 win in the rematch at Colorado a month later.

Still, that bravado hit home with Payne, who said, "that's the mindset, you know? And I think that sort of permeates throughout our program of being respectful of everyone but not fearing anyone."

That mentality is driving the gritty Buffaloes' return to prominence for the first time since coach Ceal Barry made them a perennial power from 1983 to 2005.

The 61-53 overtime win over third-seeded Duke at Cameron Indoor Stadium this week vaulted Colorado to the Sweet 16 for the first time in 20 years, giving the Buffaloes a matchup against second-seeded Iowa and Hawkeyes superstar Caitlin Clark on Friday in Seattle.

"We're so ready," sophomore guard Kindyll Wetta said. "This is probably the most excited we've been going into any game this season."

Sherrod tearfully told the broadcast crew on Monday night that Colorado was the only Power Five program that offered her a scholarship coming out of high school, so never once has she thought of jumping into the transfer portal.

"This is not a place where we have a roster full of McDonald's All-Americans," Payne said. "We don't need to play pretty, we don't need to be dainty on the floor. We're tough. We're blue-collar. We work hard.

"It's not easy, you know, but you'll be loved and supported and challenged and all of our players came here knowing that. So I think we've created an identity where we do play really hard, we are really gritty. We love who we are, we love the players that are here and it just works for us."

One tangible connection the Buffs have to their glory days is Shelley Sheetz, the best player in the program's history and the color analyst on Colorado's radio broadcasts.

Sheetz played point guard at CU from 1991-95 and is the program's only first-team All-American. She told the team in the offseason that she saw similar traits to the one she guided to a 106-21 record with two Elite Eight appearances.

"Shelley, she told us this was going to happen," Buffs senior center Quay Miller said. "When we went to Spain (in the offseason) she was like, 'This team is looking like the Elite Eight team that I played for.' And I think for most people, it went in one ear and out the other.

"But I think just hearing somebody who's been through that and having her see that we have the potential, it really ignited the fire under us and was like OK, we have potential to do what they did, and we can do this."

The Buffs have gone from a non-tournament team three years ago to one that's won 47 games over the last two seasons.

"There are so many firsts that we've done, winning at Oregon, winning at Oregon State, winning in the NCAA tournament, going to the Sweet 16," Payne said. "All of these things are things that every player on our team came here to help us do. And it's an emotional thing because it takes so much work.

"It's different to go somewhere where the train is already, you know, full steam ahead and there's tons of success and momentum. It takes a lot more work and sort of emotional work to get there."

That's why Sherrod was so emotional after the thriller at Duke.

"My whole life I've been dreaming of moments like this," Sherrod said, "because, like a lot of my teammates, we weren't five-stars, we weren't McDonald's All-Americans. We weren't guaranteed the NCAA tournament. We weren't guaranteed an NIT bid.

"We believed it when nobody else did. That's just the mentality of this team ... we believe we can beat anybody in the country."

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AP women's college basketball: https://apnews.com/hub/womens-college-basketball and https://apnews.com/hub/ap-top-25-womens-college-basketball-poll