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Portal prowess a big key in sustained success for CU Buffs women's basketball

Mar. 27—Maddie Nolan had plenty of options once she decided to hit the transfer portal and spend her final college basketball season in new turf.

No doubt, Nolan spoke with plenty of interesting basketball minds during the recruiting process. She probably heard plenty of smooth sales pitches.

Yet it was one of Nolan's first conversations with Colorado women's basketball coach JR Payne that eventually sealed the deal with the sharpshooter from Michigan. Not only was Nolan sold on Payne's passion and energy, but the attention to detail was unmatched.

"I remember them playing in the Sweet 16 last year, and that toughness and that tenacity that they play with is something that I pride myself on. That kind of drew me in," Nolan said. "One of the things that stood out to me the most is I had a Zoom meeting with JR when I was getting recruited. She pulled clips of the offense that they do here and then their defense, and then pulled clips of me at Michigan. It was like, 'Look, this is what you do already. This is how it fits into our system.'

"I was like, 'Wow.' That they took the time to kind of find those similarities and show me how I can fit into them was huge for me."

The addition of Nolan and Sara-Rose Smith last summer continued a 1.000 batting average for Payne and her staff in recent years in the transfer portal. That ability to identify and land the perfect options for the program based upon need as well as fit is a big reason why CU will play in its second consecutive Sweet 16, against top-seeded Iowa on Saturday in Albany, N.Y. (1:30 p.m. MT, ABC).

It's one thing to identify a need. It's quite another for a coaching staff to consistently fill those needs with players that fit seamlessly into an established culture. Yet that's what Payne and her staff have achieved.

During the summer of 2020, CU added Georgetown transfer Tayanna Jones, an athletic guard who was a key role player for the 2022 NCAA Tournament team and a starter last year who provided perimeter defense while finishing third on the team in rebounding during the Sweet 16 run.

In the spring of 2021, the Buffs added Quay Miller and Tameiya Sadler as transfers from Washington. Both players have been rotation fixtures on three consecutive NCAA Tournament teams, with Miller earning All-Pac-12 honors the past two seasons.

Two years ago, the Buffs needed more size inside. The Buffs landed Aaronette Vonleh, who immediately prospered in her move to CU from Arizona. Vonleh landed the Pac-12's Most Improved Player honor last year and earned first team all-conference honors this year.

After last year's Sweet 16 loss against Iowa, it was clear the Buffs needed another outside threat to complement Frida Formann. The Buffs found it in Nolan, who leads the Buffs with a .435 3-point percentage. CU also added a key depth player in Smith, a transfer from Missouri who filled Jones' shoes. Like Jones last year, Smith is third on the team in rebounds (4.1 per game).

In each case, the new portal additions immediately looked as if they had played with their new teammates for years. It's a testament to the attention to detail that first impressed Nolan, as CU's staff leaves no stone unturned while vetting potential additions in the transfer portal.

"I think just really being intentional about, one, making sure that people line up with the culture that we have," Payne said. "We want to recruit players that want to work hard, be a great teammate, be unselfish and just compete on a daily basis. And all of those players lined up with that mindset. Also, no real egos in that group. People that just want to be part of a great team, want to contribute to overall success.

"But then also niches. When we signed Aaronette, we needed a five. We needed a true post player. With Maddie, we needed a shooter, someone that can stretch the defense along with Frida. I think being pretty smart about what do we have, what do we need, and then just trying to fill those needs."