Oregon State women’s basketball coach Scott Rueck was asked what lessons his team took from its magical ride into the NCAA tournament.
“They belong, that’s the No. 1 thing,’’ he said without hesitation.
But the Beavers’ 78-69 defeat against South Carolina at Alaska Airlines Arena on Tuesday night also provided a guidepost for what separates a top-seeded team like the Gamecocks. They were simply too athletic, too fast, too relentless, and too physical for ninth-seeded Oregon State.
“There’s times you say, ‘We can play with them,’ but as soon as you get close, they hit a different gear,’’ Rueck said. “That’s what’s special about that group.”
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That’s not to say that South Carolina might not soon be uttering similar sentiments. If the Gamecocks get by North Carolina in their Sweet 16 matchup – and the Tar Heels handed the Gamecocks one of their four defeats this year – they would still have to navigate past Stanford, and gulp, Connecticut and, gulp again, Notre Dame.
The latter two teams are undefeated and absolutely crushing opponents. While the story line in the men’s tournament is rampant parity, and how there’s no clear-cut favorite, for the women it’s the overwhelming dominance of those two teams, Connecticut and Notre Dame. They are the consensus picks to meet for the title.
Rueck said of South Carolina, “I’ve heard people say of the one seeds, they’re the fourth of the ones … But I think the sky’s the limit for them. I don’t see any weaknesses.”
The Gamecocks certainly were brilliant in taking away the strengths of Oregon State. That started with the stifling defense they put on the Beavers’ star, point guard Sydney Wiese, fresh off dropping 26 points, including six three-pointers, in OSU’s victory over Middle Tennessee State on Sunday.
But Wiese simply couldn’t get untracked Tuesday as South Carolina hounded her all night. Wiese went scoreless until just 1:32 remained in the game, when she finally dropped a three-pointer. At that point, she was 0 for 13 from the field, 0 for 11 from behind the arc. Wiese finished with eight, all after the game was in hand for South Carolina.
Meanwhile, South Carolina was aggressive in attacking, and defending, Oregon State’s 6-foot-6 post, Ruth Hamblin, who was held scoreless before fouling out.
“They just pressured Syd and kind of got her off balance,’’ said Oregon State’s Jamie Weisner, who led the Beavers with 21 points. “Ruth had open shots she could have made, but they’re big, and kind of pushed her off her position. Overall, they forced us to do things we didn’t want to do.”
It was defense by waves on Wiese, one of the top freshmen in the Pac-12 this year. Khadijah Sessions, Tiffany Mitchell and Olivia Gaines all had their turns guarding Wiese.
“You have to maintain pressure on her,’’ South Carolina coach Dawn Staley said. “Try to disrupt the flow she’s trying to do. We tried to speed her up and not get comfortable taking her normal shots.
“They all provided different looks. Olivia played a little underneath her. Tiffany was taller and tried to take her vision away. Khadijah used her speed and was real disciplined staying in plays and making sure she shot over someone, over a contested hand.”
Wiese acknowledged “they were all over me…They’re quick. They did a great job staying right next to me. I felt their presence the entire time. I think that’s what might have thrown my shot off, because I knew they were right there. They weren’t leaving me.”
Rueck said it wasn’t a unique strategy, merely a perfectly executed one.
“We’ve seen that all year. There are a lot of great athletes in our conference. That’s been done to Sydney Wiese all year long. I don’t know why the ball didn’t go down tonight, but that’s basketball.
“That’s not taking away from them in any way, but she’s been everyone’s target all year. She’s managed to play through it. I thought she still got some good looks, but they’re such good athletes, and close gaps so quick. They made her really work, and challenged pretty much every shot. And she still got shots she normally gets.”
Oregon State left the game disappointed but hardly deterred, not surprising considering its longshot journey to the NCAA tournament.
“It’s been an incredible ride,’’ Rueck said. “That’s from their leader looking back. This group is so special. They’ve learned so many lessons, taught so many lessons. Their goal is to inspire and use the platform they have to put smiles on others faces. I don’t know how you do whole lot better than what they did.”
Larry Stone: 206-464-3146 or firstname.lastname@example.org.