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Pac-12 women's basketball embracing the madness of March

Mar 23, 2023
Photo courtesy UCLA Athletics

This is the madness of March that no one talks about.

Utah head coach Lynne Roberts spent the day after her team’s win over Princeton to reach the Sweet 16 trying to recover her lost voice, and by evening, she was at her son’s hockey practice. Still hoarse and pretty tired.

Colorado coach JR Payne walked in the door after traveling back from North Carolina, her team in the regional semifinals for the first time in two decades after defeating Duke on its home floor, and immediately ran a huge load of laundry. Which then needed to be folded as she watched film on the Buffaloes’ next opponent — second-seeded Iowa. The night before, she confessed, she’d been up until 4 a.m. answering texts and checking social media for celebration photos and posts.

“It’s been a grind ever since, trying to focus on Iowa,” Payne said. “We are doing what we need to be ready and we are just moving and shaking.”

UCLA’s Cori Close left Pauley Pavilion after her team’s second-round win over Oklahoma on her electric scooter, riding home in the rain because her mother had taken her car home. She got home to her mother, sister and brother-in-law wanting every detail of the moments after the game. Close was ready for bed.

“It’s just mass chaos,” Close said as she prepared Wednesday night to board a plane on Thursday morning for Greenville, South Carolina, where her team will take on the tournament’s No. 1 overall seed, unbeaten South Carolina on Saturday. “The best part has been seeing the pure joy in the kids’ eyes.”

Payne and Roberts agreed that the celebrations their teams experienced were fulfilling.

Payne joked that the ice bath she got from her team was a little chilly, but wore off quickly.

“Yeah, I’m definitely not complaining,” Roberts said of her hoarse voice. “It’s very gratifying to be in this position. It’s been a lot of work. When you are in it, it’s hard to really appreciate it, but I think I will feel it more in a few weeks.”

For Payne and Roberts, they are taking their team to a place they’ve never been before in their tenure.

Roberts, a finalist for the Naismith National Coach of the Year award after leading the Utes to a share of the Pac-12 regular season title, arrived in Salt Lake City in 2015. After three straight appearances in the WNIT upon her arrival, the Utes failed to make the postseason for three straight seasons before last year’s breakout, in which they reached the Pac-12 Tournament title game and made it into the NCAA field for the first time since 2011.

Now they will take their No. 2 seed — the highest seed in program history — to Greenville to take on No. 3 LSU.

“We got a gritty win, but we need to play better because we’ve got to keep playing,” Roberts said.

Payne has been at Colorado since 2016. It took six seasons — which included a lot of unsatisfying Pac-12 finishes — to reach the NCAA Tournament for the first time in 2022. 

Close, meanwhile, has taken the Bruins to the Sweet 16 five times since she arrived in 2011. She ranks second in all-time coaching wins at UCLA (260) behind the legendary Billie Moore.

If any of these three coaches could lead their team to a Final Four, they would become the seventh different Pac-12 program since 2013 to reach the national semifinals and the sport’s biggest stage.

So bring on the chaos.

“We are still in it right now,” Roberts said. “And I don't want to be done.”