For the first time in nearly two decades, Corvallis, Ore., was a site women’s basketball teams feared this season.
Since its last NCAA tourney berth in 1996, Oregon State turned out just two winning seasons in the Pacific-12, and in one of those it went 14-16 overall. That changed in 2013-14, with the Beavers finishing 24-11, 13-5 in the conference and winning a game in the NCAA Tournament for the first time since 1995, only their third ever.
Fourth-year head coach Scott Rueck, who was 10-21 last year and took over a team that was 9-21 his first season, has made the program relevant. And this isn’t one of those senior-laden teams that finally gets to the Big Dance and starts from scratch the following November. Its six leading scorers are all returning, and five of those are freshmen or sophomores.
“I don’t know how to describe what I’ve been a part of for the past four or five months, it’s been an incredible ride,” Rueck said shortly after his team lost to top-seeded South Carolina 78-69 Tuesday in Seattle.
“This group is so special. Their goal is to inspire, the platform they have is to put smiles on people’s faces. I couldn’t be prouder. Alyssa Martin is a senior, and it puts a smile on my face what she got to accomplish her senior year.”
On the other side of scorer’s table Tuesday was someone thrust into a similar situation.
In Dawn Staley’s first year with South Carolina, 2008-09, the Gamecocks went 10-18, and the second they were 14-15. After a WNIT third year, she has brought USC to the elite status, as it has won the program’s first SEC championship this year.
“The biggest advice is to perform in the NCAA Tournament,” Staley said. “Now that they know what it feels like, it puts them in a position to stay around. They have a good basketball team, point guard, center, I think they’re going to win a Pac-12 championship, I know Stanford will have a lot to say about that, but the team’s so young and talented, and they put coach in a good position to be successful.”
Sydney Wiese, from Phoenix’s Pinnacle High School, will return in 2014-15 after being the Beavers’ leading scorer at 14.5 points per game. Although Staley’s defense clamped down on her Tuesday and held her to 3-of-15 shooting, she played all 40 minutes and looked as intense and energized down 14 in the final minute as the opening tipoff.
Sophomore Jamie Weisner, who averaged 12.2 points, missed nine games with a hand injury, and sophomore center Ruth Hamblin led Division I with 141 blocked shots. Both are on the Canadian national team.
“This is a pivotal offseason for us, we haven’t had this before,” Rueck said.