Oregon State’s first-ever trip to the Final Four is “pinch me stuff,” Beavers top Baylor in Elite Eight and head to Indy

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Photos: © Lee Michaelson

DALLAS – “This is pinch me stuff; there are no other words for it,” said Oregon State head coach Scott Rueck as his second-seeded Beavers advanced to the first Final Four in school history after upsetting top-seeded Baylor, 60-57, to win the Elite Eight in the Dallas Regional on Monday night at the American Airlines Center in Dallas.

Someone had better notify the Indianapolis Newcomers Club:  The Beavers now head to Indiana, where they will join two other Final Four debutantes, fourth-seeded Syracuse and seventh-seeded Washington, along with the overwhelming favorite and overall top seed in the tournament, reigning champion University of Connecticut, in the national semifinals on Sunday, April 3.

Not since 2004, when Minnesota joined LSU, Tennessee and Connecticut in the Final Four has a seven-seed made it to the national semifinals. And not since 1994, when North Carolina, Alabama and Purdue made their first appearances alongside Louisiana Tech, a returning national champion, have three newcomers all made their initial appearances in the same Final Four (the previous season set the bar, as the 1993 Final Four featured four first-timers: Texas Tech, Ohio State, Iowa and Vanderbilt).

The journey to the top “has been incredible,” OSU’s Ruth Hamblin and Sydney Wiese agreed, but it has not been an easy one for the Beavers. Just five years ago, when Rueck returned to his alma mater to take the helm, Oregon State was a program locked in irons, picked to finish last in the then-Pac-10. With a 9-21 record for the 2010-11 season, an NCAA Tournament invitation was not even in the conversation for the program at that time.

The next two years saw some improvement, as OSU made its way to the WNIT. Still, Jamie Weisner, Ruth Hamblin and Deven Hunter, now seniors, remember their freshman season (2012-13) as another rough haul, losing 10 conference games in a row, and 12 of their final 13, to finish 10-21 overall and 4-14 in the Pac-12.

“When you think of our freshman year, you come in and win 10 games – there wasn’t a lot of hope in the room,” said Hamblin. “We knew what we’re capable of and I think our work ethic has just paid off, and all the hard lessons we learned, especially the losses down the stretch. We learned from those, and we built from there, and we never let our hope die.”

For Rueck, who had friends warn that they were “scared for him” and call his new job “the worst in America” at the time he signed on, the turning point came the following season (2013-14), after a couple of tough but close losses to nationally ranked Penn State and Florida, they took on Notre Dame at home in Corvallis. They lost that game too, by double digits (58-70).

“So Ruth [Hamblin] was a sophomore. Jamie [Weisner], a sophomore. Sydney [Wiese], a freshman,” Rueck recalled. “And we had lost a couple of really tough games that we thought, ‘Man, we were in it.’ We led, I think, Penn State. We were up 30 minutes in that game. Florida we were up 35 minutes and couldn’t close them. We go home for Christmas and come back and here is Notre Dame Coming in, and we had 5,000 people there that day, because we had hyped that game because everyone wanted to see Notre Dame coming off a Final Four.”

“And this team went toe-to-toe with them that day,” Rueck continued. “Ruth was two rebounds short of a triple-double that day in that game. We had the ball down four with two minutes to go. We turned it over. We ended up losing by 11, I believe. We didn’t know how to win yet, but that was the day that this team believed. From that day forward, there was a core belief that we could play with anyone.

Notre Dame head coach Muffet McGraw also added an important word of encouragement, said Rueck. “After the game, Muffet said, ‘That’s a tournament team.’ She is the first person to say it, ‘That’s a tournament team.’ We’re like, ‘Really? Maybe we are a tournament team!’”

That faith in themselves as contenders, capable of taking on anyone, served the Beavers well on Monday, as few besides themselves could envision the Beavers, playing in their first Elite Eight, upsetting Baylor, the lone remaining one-seed in this year’s tournament aside from the Connecticut Huskies. The Lady Bears, 36-1, coming into the night’s game, had lost just once all season, in their Big 12 Conference opener at Oklahoma State. Baylor was without its star point guard Niya Johnson, sidelined for that game with a bone bruise.

The Bears are used to winning. They have two national titles to their credit, one in 2005 and again in 2012, capping a perfect, 40-0 season. They’ve been to three Final Fours, five Elite Eights, nine Sweet 16s. They’ve won both the Big 12 regular-season and the Big 12 tournament championship for the last six years in a row.

They also, for all practical purposes, were playing at home. The American Airlines Center is just an hour-and-a-half drive away from the Bears’ campus in Waco, Texas, and even on a Monday evening, plenty of the team’s supporters made that drive, as evidenced by the sea of green and gold in the crowd of 6,050.

The Bears got off to a quick start, forcing back-to-back turnovers by the Beavers, dropping in two quick buckets to take the early lead (4-0), and holding OSU scoreless over the game’s first three-and-a-half minutes.

After raining down a hailstorm of treys against DePaul on Saturday to reach the Round of Eight, Sydney Weise’s first two attempts were off the mark. Meanwhile, Hamblin missed a couple of chippies.

But perhaps because of those years of hard times, because of all the narrow losses, the Beavers did not get rattled. Instead, Wiese hoisted another from downtown and this one was good. A minute later, Wiese drained another 3-ball, to put the Beavers on top by two (4-6) and Gabriella Hanson followed that up with another long-ball off a feed from Wiese on OSU’s next possession to make it a five-point edge for the visitors.

Five points is not much of a lead against an opponent who can score the ball as prolifically as Baylor, but from that point, roughly midway through the opening period, the Bears would lead most of the way. Despite poor shooting by both sides in the early going, with Oregon State netting only five of its 16 field-goal attempts (31.3 percent) and Baylor making only 4 of 15 (26.7 percent), the Beavers’ four treys in the opening period helped them sustain a five-point lead (16-11) by the end of the first period.

Interestingly, though to that point OSU was controlling the backboards to the tune of 15-8 overall and 6-3 on the offensive glass, the Beavers weren’t getting much out of it. Baylor led, 6-3, in second-chance points. Moreover, OSU coughed up four turnovers in the opening quarter, which Baylor translated into five points. Baylor turned it over just once in the opening stanza, and Oregon State was unable to convert.  Bottom line: The key stat in the early going was perimeter shooting, where the Beavers netted 12 of their 15 points on 4-8 from beyond the arc. In contrast, Baylor went 0-2 from long range in the opening period.

That trend continued, largely unabated, throughout the second quarter, in which Baylor repeatedly closed to within a single possession, only to see Oregon State knock down a clutch shut to keep its lead alive. A trio of OSU turnovers by Hanson, Weisner and Wiese led to back-to-back jumpers by Baylor’s Nina Davis and Alexis Jones, allowing the Bears to pull within two, 16-18, at the 6:10 mark of the second period.  But OSU’s Samantha Siegner stole the ball from Alexis Jones, and after Baylor’s Kristy Wallace fouled, Weisner dished to Marie Gulich, who was filling in for Hamblin after the latter picked up her second personal early in the second quarter. Gulich laid it in to put the lead back to four (16-20).

Baylor’s Kalani Brown put back her own miss at the other end, but Wiese responded with a trey, and Gulich blocked an attempted layup by Davis.

That’s when Baylor head coach Kim Mulkey, who had been vehemently complaining about the calls almost from the opening tip, went ballistic, drawing a technical foul.

The officiating had the fans in a lather, the crowd rising nearly as one to boo the referees as they left the court, with a police escort, at the half. But at least to this observer, the problem seemed to be that the crew was inconsistent among themselves, rather than that the calls favored one side more than the other. One member of the crew would call contact with a stationary defender while in route to the hoop a charge; another would call nearly identical contact as a blocking foul.  If anything, Oregon State seemed to have more to complain about than Baylor, with Hamlin having to sit out more than 11 minutes in the opening half thanks to two early fouls (one of which seemed to have been called on a clean block) and sharpshooter Sydney Wiese also operating with two fouls picked up early on.

After the game, Mulkey attributed the loss in large part to missed free throws, which plainly were a factor—Baylor made only five of its 12 first-half attempts from the charity stripe in the opening half and 6-14 for the game as a whole.

Mulkey explained that she had been doing everything she could think of to throw the Beavers off balance. She called for a press “just to keep them out of using up the 30-second clock in the half-court.” She used her timeouts quickly, “trying to make sure they didn’t stay in a flow.”

And, she added, “The technical, you bet I meant to get it!”

Still, when she has had time to do a thorough post-mortem, Mulkey might wish she’d thought better of engaging the refs. Weisner made only one of the two free throws off the technical, but Oregon State regained possession, and Hanson knocked down a jumper. That three-point swing from the technical is exactly the ultimate margin of victory, and it enabled OSU to extend its lead to eight points roughly four minutes before the half.

Over the next three minutes, OSU would go cold, while Baylor clawed its way back, with Johnson, Kalani Brown and Alexis Jones each contributing a layup and Alexis Prince adding a foul shot, to draw within a single point (25-26) with just under two minutes to go in the half.  But the Beavers responded with an 8-0 run, including a 3-point buzzer beater in the final second, to close out the half with their biggest lead of the night, nine points, 25-34.

OSU’s shooting in the second frame had improved to 60 percent (6-15), with the majority of their scoring still coming from beyond the arc, where their seven made 3s (in 13 attempts) supplied 21 of their 34 first-half points. With Hamblin riding the pines for so much of the second period, the Beavers’ rebounding suffered; they pulled down only six boards (to Baylor’s 11) in the second frame, none of them off the offensive glass. Meanwhile, Mulkey rotated her two freshman bigs, 6-4 Beatrice Mompremier and the 6-7 Brown, in and out of the game, periodically supplementing their efforts with brief appearances by 6-3 junior Khadijiah Cave. Brown’s performance, in particular, was impressive; the frosh accounted for four of Baylor’s seven offensive rebounds in the second quarter, helping the Bears to take a 13-3 advantage in second-chance points by the half.

Baylor seized the momentum coming out of the break, thanks in large part to the efforts of Duke transfer Alexis Jones. Jones got the party started with a trey, then picked Weisner’s pocket and dropped in a midrange jumper, to start the third quarter on a solo 5-0 run.

If that news weren’t bad enough for the Beavers, Hamblin picked up her third personal only a minute into the second half.  She remained on the floor for the time being, where she would contribute six of the next eight points—and five critical rebounds—over the next four minutes. Still, with both Hamblin and, by then, 6-3 forward Deven Hunter both playing with three fouls apiece, Rueck was forced to sub them both out midway through the third period.

Baylor took advantage of their absence to launch a 6-0 run in the form of back-to-back-to-back layups by Cave, and with 3:17 to go and the Beavers once again clinging to a one-point lead (41-42) and Baylor enjoying all the momentum, Rueck was forced to call timeout, and send Hamblin and Hunter back into the fray.  Hamblin immediately put in a layup (off a feed from Hunter) but Jones answered in kind at the other end.

Weisner knocked down back-to-back jumpers, and Hamblin swatted away a Davis layup to make it a five-point OSU lead (43-48) with under a minute remaining in the period.

Brown dropped in a layup for Baylor, and was fouled by Hamblin in the process. Though Brown failed to convert the conventional three-point play, that made four personals for Hamblin, who quickly headed to the sidelines.

Finishing out the period, Wallace stole the rock from Hunter and fed it to Johnson, who without Hamblin to contend with was good for a layup. That made it a one-point game, 47-48, with OSU still on top by a nose, heading into the final frame.

Hamblin cooled her heels on the bench while the two sides traded buckets, and Baylor briefly took the lead (51-50) on a layup by Davis. Weisner knotted the score on a foul shot (one of a pair), and from there the score would be tied three more times.

Baylor’s Jones tied the score for the final time at 57 apiece with 2:19 to go. The scoreboard did not budge again until the clock wound down to the final 33 seconds.

Baylor finished the night with only eight turnovers, while forcing 19 by the Beavers, but Oregon State was helped by the fact that two of the Bears’ eight miscues occurred during the game’s final minutes, as Jones stepped out of bounds at the baseline, and as the game entered the final minute, Hamblin stole the ball from Johnson. After a timeout, Jones fouled while attempting to get it back, sending Wiese to the line, where she made one of the pair, to restore Oregon State to a one-point (57-58) edge.

Baylor allowed the clock to run down to 11 seconds before Jones hoisted the potential game-winner, a midrange jumper that skimmed the rim but rolled out. Hamblin grabbed the board, and now Baylor had no choice but to foul, sending Wiese back to the line. This time, Wiese made both to fix the final score, and after Johnson’s 3-point Hail Mary failed to find the net, the celebration began.

Four Beavers finished in double figures: Wiese posted 18 points, while handing out six assists but giving up an equal number of turnovers; Weisner contributed 16 points, plus eight rebounds and two assists, but seven turnovers; Hamblin and Hanson finished with 10 points each, while Hamblin made it a double-double with 12 rebounds, plus four blocks and a steal.  Though Hunter netted only two points, she contributed seven rebounds, plus two assists and a steal, and helped keep the Beavers in the game during some of the stretches when Hamblin was forced to the sidelines.

Baylor’s Jones led all scorers with 19 points, to which she added four boards, six assists and three steals. Brown finished with 12 points and six boards, plus an assist, a block and a steal, in just 19 minutes on the floor. Davis, who often faced double teams, rounded out the double-digit scoring for Baylor with 11 points.

Niya Johnson had an uncharacteristically poor shooting night, notching just six points on 3-10 from the field, but in the final game of her career as a Lady Bear, the plucky 5-8 point guard led all of her teammates with seven rebounds. Cave’s play is also worthy of mention. The 6-3 junior forward stood in tears, comforted by her teammates, as they stood at the baseline, hands extended in the shape of a bear claw, to thank their fans and sing the school song, but she had nothing to regret in her performance. In just 10 minutes on the floor, she posted six points on 3-6 shooting, to which she added four rebounds and three steals.

Remarkably, though 3-pointers had been the Beavers bread and butter throughout the game’s first half, Oregon State did not net another long-ball after the intermission. Mulkey credited halftime adjustments and better communication for the staunching the hemorrhaging on the perimeter:

“You knew they were going to make threes,” said Mulkey. “I thought in the first half, inexperience on the defensive end in communicating when they hit some of those threes was a big factor. … We made adjustments [at halftime]. A lot of it was communication with inexperienced post players, because it’s the posts, you know, that were setting the screens.”

One of those screeners was Hamblin, and when that big girl sets a screen, the opponent knows it. The foul trouble suffered by Hamblin, who played only 23 minutes, as well as Hunter, who tallied just 28 minutes of playing time, and their need to play with greater caution as the game progressed may have accounted for at least part of the downturn in the Beavers’ perimeter shooting.

Whatever the cause, the Beavers sent up 13 long-balls in the opening half, netting seven of them, to account for more than 60 percent of their first-half scoring. In the second half, they attempted only five more shots from beyond the arc, making none of them.

They made up the difference at the foul line, where they notched 15 points on 18 trips to the line (83.3 percent). Wiese, in particular, was a near-perfect 7-8 from the charity stripe, making 3-4 in the game’s final minute with a trip to the Final Four on the line.

Baylor, while prevailing in most other statistical categories, including points in the paint (42-18), points off turnovers (24-8), offensive rebounding (17-12), second-chance points (19-11) and bench points (18-4), shot a woeful 6-14 at the line.

“You cannot miss that many free throws and win a ball game at this level,” Mulkey observed. “We missed eight free throws, and … lost by three.”

Mulkey also noted that in a contest between “two of the best defensive teams in women’s basketball just battl[ing] their butts off,” the Beavers, a team packed with seniors and juniors, enjoyed greater experience and were able to come up with clutch plays at critical moments in the game.

“[I]n places, we’re extremely inexperienced, and I thought we got exposed. They did hit clutch shots, and we didn’t. I mean, there was how many times we had a tie ball game at the end, and we didn’t get a good shot? We either turned it over or … dribble[ed] too much, didn’t share the ball. You know, it wasn’t that [the Baylor players] didn’t want to do good. But I just thought the one that made the clutch shot was going to win there at the end.”

Though the Beavers are the highest-seeded of the three “upstart” teams to win trips to the Final Four, their bracket position places them on a collision course with the dominant UConn Huskies in the national semifinal on Sunday. If that’s causing them any anxiety, you couldn’t tell it on Monday night. Though Hamblin described the Huskies as “obviously a formidable opponent,” Wiese described the challenge ahead as “fun.”

“We’re excited for the opportunity to continue the season,” said Wiese. “We’re exactly where we want to be. To go against UConn, it will be a fun challenge for us. I know that our coaching staff is going to have a good game plan and it’s all about going out there and executing.”

“It’s fun to have UConn,” Weisner added. “That’s always been my dream. You know, to be the best, you have to beat the best, and that’s what’s next for us. I think all year we’ve prepared very well, and we’ll prepare for them. And we’ve been in this position, we’ve been doubted before. So we will just prepare and be ready for them.”


EIGHT WILL HAVE TO BE ENOUGH, AT LEAST FOR NOW: Despite impressive records and high tournament seeds, Baylor has exited the NCAA Tournament at the Elite Eight or sooner for the past three years, now four.  After winning the national championship and logging an unprecedented 40-0 season in 2012, Baylor (34-2), led by Brittney Griner, was the odds-on favorite to defend its title the following year, when the top-seeded (and No. 1-ranked) Bears were upset in the Sweet 16 by the Louisville Cardinals. In 2014, Baylor, that year a two-seed and the No. 5-ranked team in the AP poll, made it to the Elite Eight, before being sent home by No. 2 ranked and top-seeded Notre Dame and finishing the season 32-5. Last year, the Bears were again ranked No. 5 in the country and seeded at No. 2, when they ran up against the Irish in the Elite Eight, where, once again, they fell short of their goals.

In hopes of motivating themselves to break through the barriers and reach their goal of a return trip to the Final Four, the Lady Bears have been wearing bracelets all season bearing the slogan, “Eight is not enough.”

Junior forward Nina Davis tried to put this year’s loss in perspective. “It’s been a great season, you know. It’s been a long one. I couldn’t be more proud of this team. We didn’t reach our goal of making it to the Final Four, but a lot of teams don’t make it to the Elite Eight. It was only eight teams and we was (sic) one of those, and we will never take that for granted. We are going to get back in the gym and get over this eventually and try and get ready for next year.”

Kristina Higgins, a 6-5 post and a senior, added, “It was a great experience to get this far again. Most teams aren’t this lucky. I know it sounds kind of selfish for our motto to be, ‘Eight is not enough,’ but I think this team was good enough to get to the Final Four. Next year they’re going to be just as good and maybe even better. They’ve got the bigs inside still next year, still got Nina Davis, still got KK (Khadijah Cave) coming off the bench, still got Alexis Prince. This team is going to be awesome next year.”

ALL IN THE ANGLES:  As Coach Mulkey observed, this match-up featured two of the best defensive teams in women’s college basketball this season. To cite just one statistic, Oregon State is No. 1 in the nation in field-goal percentage defense, holding opponents to 31.5 percent from the field; Baylor is No. 3, holding opponents to 33-percent field-goal shooting. (Weighing in at No. 2: University of Connecticut who allows 32.9-percent shooting by opponents.) But watching them play, it’s hard to say just why and how they are so successful defensively.

For example, Beavers seemed to play Davis, the Bears’ leading scorer, averaging 16.3 points per game, too loosely, allowing the speedy and agile small forward what looked like too much room in which to operate. Still, at the end of the day, what they did, worked, as Davis came away with jut 11 points on the night, well below her average.

Mulkey herself acknowledged that she “tried to figure out” what made the Beavers so could defensively, “while watching film, and I couldn’t figure it out. It think part of it is angles. It think it’s physical play, just toughness, maybe. I don’t know that it’s height as much as it is [that] they’re in the right place at the right time and they play you pretty physical. Smart. We never – they’re not up in you defensively, like pressuring you or anything. I just think, you know, they just know how to compete.”

If playing the angles lies at the core of their effectiveness, then Ruth Hamblin, an Academic All-American who boasts a 3.84 grade-point average in her mechanical engineering major, has got to be a huge secret weapon for the Beavers. And, in fact, Hamblin believes her mathematical approach is a big help to her game.

“I think it’s huge,” said Hamblin, who notched four blocks and 12 rebounds in addition to her 10 points in the Beavers’ Elite Eight win. “It’s something that Coach Scott Rueck has taught me over the years is playing the angles to force them into a tough shot, because it’s kind of an art form down in the low post. And I don’t know if it is taught as much these days, but he’s emphasized it over the years and I think I’m a lot better at it now than I was before.”

ALL-REGIONAL TEAM:  Oregon State guard Jamie Weisner was named Most Outstanding Player of the Dallas Regional. Weisner was joined on the All-Tournament Team by her OSU teammate Sydney Wiese, Baylor’s Nina Davis and Alexis Jones, and DePaul’s Jessica January. Despite the heavy emphasis on size and post play, not only in the regional final but also in Saturday’s Sweet 16 games, all but Davis, an undersized forward at 5-11, are guards. 

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