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Utah and Colorado’s historic March Madness runs end in Sweet 16

Mar 25, 2023
Photo courtesy Colorado Athletics

SEATTLE - The most exciting thing about the NCAA Tournament is also the most painful.

By the time it is over, only one team is celebrating. For everyone else, the season ends with disappointment.

The number of Pac-12 entrants in the NCAA Tournament dropped to just one - UCLA - as of Friday night after both second-seeded Utah and sixth-seeded Colorado fell in their Sweet 16 matchups in back-to-back games an entire country apart.

Utah, playing in Greenville, South Carolina, had the opportunity to knock off No. 3 seed LSU with an 11-1 run down the closing stretch, but a pair of missed free throws with four seconds on the clock ended up being the tide-turning moment in a game that, in reality, was decided by many others as well. The Utes would fall 66-63.

And in Seattle, Colorado played a gritty, gutty game against No. 2 seed Iowa at Climate Pledge Arena, but ultimately were defeated 87-77. The Buffaloes saw three starters foul out in the final quarter and lost a one-point halftime lead with a tough third quarter before rallying to cut Iowa’s lead to four points with 1:49 to go.

Colorado had four players finish the season with double-figures scoring performances, led by Frida Formann with 21 points. Aaronette Vonleh added 14 points, while Quay Miller and Jaylyn Sherrod scored 12 and 11, respectively.

The Buffaloes finished with 21 offensive rebounds and 21 assists, but ultimately couldn’t overcome the long stretches without key players on the floor with foul trouble - Formann fouled out with more than six minutes left in the game - and they couldn’t stop the Hawkeyes from doing the things they do best, leaning into the talents of national player of the year candidate Caitlin Clark - 31 points and eight assists - and getting out in transition, where the Iowa scored 18 points.

Learning from their second straight NCAA appearance is the Buffaloes’ biggest takeaway, said head coach JR Payne. She said her team showed the resilience that they had demonstrated on the way to 25 wins this season.

“I thought we learned so much from last year's experience to this year's experience,” Payne said. “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 the year. Not the disappointment, but just the desire to not let it happen again, and to really work daily.

“The makeup of these players and the makeup of our program is just toughness, grit. We want to outwork people and I don't expect that would ever change.”

Utah, a team without a senior on its roster, battled with LSU down to the final seconds and were led by sophomore Gianna Kneepkens’ 20 points and eight rebounds, while Alissa Pili, the Pac-12 Player of the Year and center of LSU’s defensive game plan, added 14 points. The Tigers’ scored the go-ahead point from the free-throw line with 10 seconds to go. Jenna Johnson’s misses at the stripe with four seconds to go made the comeback that much more difficult.

Utah head coach Lynne Roberts made sure to let Johnson, who led the team with 37 minutes played in the game, know that she is proud of her.

“I thought she played her tail off today. She left it all out there,” Roberts said. “A game never comes down to the last shot. I mean, that's what we remember, that's what we talk about, but there's so much that goes in before that… I love that kid. She's a fighter. It's hard. Those are pressure moments, and it's a growing experience for her. She's just a sophomore. But I don't think that'll happen again if she gets that opportunity again, knowing her, the competitor she is. If you said Jenna Johnson on the line in this game to win it, would you take it, heck yeah. And I'd take it tomorrow.”

Both teams conclude their longest NCAA Tournament runs in many years. Utah hadn’t been to the Sweet 16 since 2006. For the Buffaloes, it has been since 2003. Both teams have the majority of their lineups returning next season, setting a new bar for themselves and anyone who wasn’t playing close attention until these postseason runs.

“Honestly, it was just about setting the standard, and I think that's something over my four years with Coach J that we've always talked about, just setting a standard of excellence and wanting to be excellent every day,” said Buffaloes senior guard Sherrod, who hasn’t yet decided if she will return for a fifth season. “This team will definitely be back. I think everybody knows who Colorado is now and we have earned some respect behind our name, and so, yeah, just the team will be hungry.”

Kneepkens said it’s hard to think about the future when working through the pain of a tough loss.

“Yeah, it's hard to think about it right now, but that is something we can look forward to,” Kneepkens said. “Just like being with each other throughout the summer and getting better. Yeah, right now it's hard to think about, but it's definitely exciting for the future.”