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CU women end season with WNIT loss to Iowa

IOWA CITY, Iowa — Senior Haley Smith closed out her Colorado women’s basketball career with a 25-point performance but the Buffaloes couldn’t keep pace with hot-shooting Iowa, falling 80-62 here Thursday night in the WNIT Sweet Sixteen.

Smith, of Sammamish, Wash., averaged 19.2 points in the Buffs’ last four games – a Pac-12 Conference Tournament loss to Washington State and three WNIT games.

“Obviously this was my last game and I won’t be playing anymore,” Smith said. “But I’m confident in where the program is being left, and I’m really happy to have had the new coaches come in, and I’m excited to see where the program goes, and I know it’s only going up from here.”

She shot 9-of-15 from the field and hit all three of her 3-point attempts Thursday night, making her 31-of-48 and 8-of-11 in those respective areas in her final four games as a Buff.

CU finished its first season under coach JR Payne at 17-16 while Iowa improved to 20-13 and advances to the WNIT semifinals. Payne called Carver-Hawkeye Arena “a really tough place to play (but) we just weren’t aggressive enough to be successful tonight . . . we didn’t do what we needed to do to be successful.”

Aside from Smith, the Buffs had only one other player in double figures – reserve Ariana Freeman with 12. Leading scorer Kennedy Leonard finished with six points, hitting only two of her 14 field goal attempts with both of those baskets 3-pointers. She was 2-of-8 from beyond the arc.

Iowa shot 49 percent (29-of-59) from the field and featured four players in double digits, topped by Alexa Kastanek’s 19. Averaging just 3.3 points a game, Kastanek had only one other double-figure game this season. She was 7-of-11 from the field, including 5-of-9 from long range.

CU shot only 39 percent from the field and 33 percent from 3-point range.

The Buffs played their second WNIT game without starting guard Alexis Robinson, who suffered a torn ACL in the practice prior to last Sunday’s game at South Dakota State.

Robinson, who averaged 11.6 points a game, did not make the Iowa trip and once again was replaced in the starting lineup by freshman Quinessa Caylao-Do.

HOW IT HAPPENED: The Hawkeyes led by as many as 22 points in the second quarter and were up by 19 – 48-29 – at the half. They pulled away courtesy of a 17-0 run after the Buffs had closed to within 27-22, cutting their into first-quarter deficit of 25-18 on back-to-back baskets by Smith.

But after Smith’s layup, which came with 8:53 left in the period, CU didn’t score again until the 3:08 mark, when Smith ended Iowa’s 17-0 run with a short jumper.

The Hawkeyes entered the game averaging six treys a game, and in the first quarter they managed just one in four attempts. But in the second quarter they were 5-of-6 from beyond the arc during their 17-0 surge, with Kastanek going 3-of-5 for the half.

Iowa finished the half 6-of-14 (43 percent) from long range and 17-of-29 overall (59 percent). And the Hawkeyes were 8-of-9 from the free throw line.

Meanwhile the Buffs didn’t attempt a first-half free throw and shot only 39 percent from the field (13-of-33) and 33 percent (3-of-9) from long range.

The second half didn’t bring any relief for CU. Iowa outscored the visitors 6-2 to open the third quarter, opening a 25-point lead – 56-31 – and by quarter’s end was up 68-46.

Kastanek kept up her torrid shooting, hitting two more treys in the quarter, while Smith (12 points) and Makenzie Ellis (5) were the only two Buffs to score in the period.

CU opened the final quarter with a 5-0 run, getting field goals from Freeman and Ellis and one of two free throws from Smith – the Buffs’ first of the game with 8:32 left to play.

But that mini-surge brought CU only to within 68-51, leaving the Buffs with too much of a hill to climb and too little time to do it. The Hawkeyes maintained at least a 15-point lead until the final buzzer, increasing their advantage to 23 at one point.

TURNING POINT: After the Buffs closed to within 27-22 on back-to-back baskets by Smith to open the second quarter, the Hawkeyes unleased a 17-0 run to take a 22-point lead.

CU STANDOUTS: In addition to her 25 points, Smith collected seven rebounds and had three steals . . . . Ellis had a team-best nine rebounds to go with her nine points . . . . Freeman was 6-of-14 from the field and had six rebounds and two steals.

KEY STATISTICS: The Buffs out-rebounded the Hawkeyes by eight, but committed 18 turnovers to the Hawkeyes’ 14 . . . . Still, Iowa got only 9 points off CU’s miscues to the Buffs’ 11 off the Hawkeyes’ errors . . . . Iowa had a 29-18 advantage in bench points and a 34-24 advantage in points in the paint . . . . The Hawkeyes’ nine 3-pointers were three more than their seasonal average.

WHAT IT MEANS:
The Buffs’ season is over, but the final game wasn’t emblematic of their overall competitiveness under Payne. Being down a starter (Robinson) hurt CU on both ends of the court, and having to overcome that loss in a hostile environment for a second consecutive game was a tall order. But Payne can take heart in a foundation being laid and her returning players now knowing what she and her staff expect.

NOTEWORTHY: Smith topped 20 points for the eighth time in her career and the sixth time this season …. Iowa’s 48 points in the first half were the most first-half points against CU since UCLA had 50 on Jan. 11, 2015 …. CU dropped to 0-4 this season when losing the turnover battle …. CU’s plus-8 rebounding margin was the best since plus-11 against Utah on Jan. 25 …. CU had double-digit steals for the 23rd time this season …. CU finished the season above .500 (17-16, .515) for the first time since 2013-14 (19-15, .559) …. JR Payne’s 17 wins are the fourth-most in a first season among CU’s eight all-time coaches and the improvement of 10 wins from 2015-16 (7-23 record) are tied for the most by a first-year coach (Sox Walseth went 28-5 in his first season in 1980-81 after the team went 18-11 the year before under Rene Portland.

Story courtesy of B.G. Brooks, CUBuffs.com