DURHAM, N.C. — Several of the experts picked Colorado to be an upset victim.
At the very least, a tough wire-to-wire battle with Middle Tennessee figured to be on tap for the Buffaloes.
But this? This was not expected.
Led by Frida Formann catching fire from 3-point range, the CU women’s basketball team dominated Middle Tennessee, 82-60, on Saturday in the first round of the NCAA Tournament at Cameron Indoor Stadium.
Sixth-seeded CU (24-8) will face third-seeded Duke on Monday at Cameron. This is CU’s first win in the NCAA Tournament since reaching the Sweet 16 in 2003.
“It just feels great,” said Formann, who had 21 points to help end CU’s tournament drought. “I really wanted to do this for my teammates and my coaches. We’ve just worked so hard to get here and I’m just happy we’re back on this stage finally.”
Last Sunday, senior point guard Jaylyn Sherrod got the motivation she needed when CU was seeded sixth — a spot lower than many expected. Then, Conference USA champion MTSU (28-5) became a popular pick by pundits to be a lower seed pulling a first-round upset.
“Of course you hear it,” Sherrod said of being fueled by outsiders. “I can’t speak on the team but I know for me, I always keep a mental note of just like being an underdog because that’s who I am. That’s what I’ve always been, and that’s what I bring to the team: that energy and that fire from being an underdog.”
Almost from start to finish, the Buffs played like the favorite, putting together one of their most dominant games of the season.
“Our upperclassmen did a really great job of refocusing us all week on who we are, what we’re about, what success looks like for this ballclub,” CU head coach JR Payne said. “And I think it was on full display for probably close to 40 minutes tonight.
“We were so locked into the game plan for this week. … Today was the best shoot-around we’ve had all year. Our energy, our focus is I think right where it needs to be at this time of year.”
Formann hit 5 of 8 3-pointers, but she wasn’t alone in firing and hitting from beyond the arc. Overall, CU was 13 of 27 from 3-point range. It’s the most 3-pointers ever made by a CU team in the NCAA Tournament and just the 10th time in program history the Buffs have hit that many in a game. Their previous high this season was 11.
CU also dominated on the boards (out-rebounding the Blue Raiders 43-29), posted 21 assists on 30 buckets and finished with a shooting percentage of 48.4% (30 of 62).
Sherrod added 13 points and six assists, while Aaronette Vonleh had 11 points.
“They just made the plays,” MTSU head coach Rick Insell said. “They’re a good basketball team. They’re in a tough conference like us, but tonight was their night. They played extremely well. We didn’t play that bad, but they played extremely well and my hat goes off to them.”
MTSU won the regular season and tournament titles in C-USA and had won 10 in a row coming in, but couldn’t find its rhythm all night. The Blue Raiders were just 4 of 24 from 3-point range.
The Blue Raiders did cut CU’s lead to 33-28 late in the first half, but the Buffs’ Kindyll Wetta drained a 3-pointer at the buzzer to cap a 9-0 run going into the half. That gave CU a 42-28 lead and the momentum stayed with the Buffs.
CU’s lead reached 31 points in the second half before MTSU closed the game on an 11-2 run in the last six minutes.
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For the Buffs, it didn’t erase the sting of last year’s first-round loss to Creighton, but they did use that as motivation.
“When you’ve been here before and lost it’s just (the mindset) to never take that opportunity for granted,” Formann said. “So we just came in here really focused and ready to play.”
CU is now 18-14 all-time in the NCAA Tournament, but had lost four in a row since knocking off North Carolina on March 24, 2003.
“It feels incredible,” Payne said. “This entire year has been really pretty incredible, though. I said it in postgame press conferences (throughout the year), I freaking love my team. I absolutely love them. They work hard, they’re selfless. They celebrate each other. So every opportunity I have to get to be with these guys and then to win a game is a blessing. It’s an absolute blessing. So yeah, I’m super excited.
“When I left the hotel, I was kind of looking around thinking, ‘Man, I hope I’m happy when I get back here and I definitely will be.”
Snapshot: CU Buffs WBB 82, Middle Tennessee 60
Turning point: MTSU pulled within five points late in the first half, but CU closed the half on a 9-0 run to build a 14-point lead at the break. The Buffs never looked back from there.
Buff of the game: Frida Formann. The junior was sensational in scoring 21 points on 5-of-8 shooting from 3-point range. She also had five rebounds and two blocks.
What’s next?: Sixth-seeded Colorado will play third-seeded Duke on Monday in Durham.
Colorado 82, Middle Tennessee 60
MIDDLE TENNESSEE (28-5)
Whitson 1-5 0-0 3, Boldyreva 6-8 3-3 16, Wheeler 6-17 3-3 15, Gregory 1-8 0-0 3, Whittington 2-5 0-0 4, Blakely 3-6 0-1 6, Malashka 6-15 0-0 13, Grannum 0-0 0-0 0. Totals 25-64 6-7 60.
Vonleh 4-7 3-3 11, Miller 2-8 0-0 5, Sherrod 6-11 0-0 13, Jones 3-5 0-0 8, Formann 6-10 4-4 21, McLeod 3-5 2-2 8, Sadler 3-6 0-1 7, Wetta 2-7 0-0 6, Wynn 1-1 0-0 3, Whittaker 0-2 0-0 0. Totals 30-62 9-10 82.
Middle Tennessee 11 17 16 16 – 60
Colorado 22 20 28 12 – 82
3-point goals – MTSU 4-24 (Gregory 1-7, Whitson 1-4, Malashka 1-3, Boldyreva 1-1, Wheeler 0-6, Whittington 0-2, Blakely 0-1), Colorado 13-27 (Formann 5-8, Wetta 2-6, Jones 2-3, Miller 1-5, Sherrod 1-2, Sadler 1-1, Wynn 1-1, Whittaker 0-1). Rebounds – MTSU 29 (Whitson 6), Colorado 43 (Miller 8). Assists – MTSU 8 (Blakely 4), Colorado 21 (Sherrod, Wetta 6). Steals – MTSU 9 (Wheeler, Whittington 4), Colorado 5 (Wetta 3). Turnovers – MTSU 8, Colorado 17. Total fouls – MTSU 9, Colorado 17. Fouled out – None. A – 1,456.
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