Slaughter: Storybook season must continue

Women’s Basketball Pac-12 Champions

Brenden Slaughter Associate Sports Editor

Do all stories really have a happy ending?

Perhaps not, but for the Oregon State women’s basketball team, anything less than a magical end to the 2015-2016 season would be disappointing.

On Sunday, the Beavers ran UCLA out of the gym in the Pac-12 Championship game, controlling every aspect from start to finish en route to a 69-57 victory.

The final scored made things look better for the Bruins, who were down 44-17 at halftime.

The craziest part of this train of thought is how far this OSU team has evolved in just one season.

They endured a stretch of six conference games without junior starting point guard Sydney Wiese and won all of them.

They found a never-say-die leader in senior guard Jamie Weisner.

Sophomore forward Marie Gulich and freshman guard Katie McWilliams became regular contributors off the bench, making OSU’s team deeper than it had ever been in the Rueck era.

The results?

A Pac-12 regular season title, and OSU’s first conference tournament championship.

It wasn’t an easy feat either. The Beavers had to first get by a pesky USC squad, then played arguably the nation’s best pure scorer in Washington’s Kelsey Plum, and finished with one of the most athletic teams in the country in UCLA.

The odds were stacked against the Beavers, but they didn’t falter.

OSU passed all the challenges with flying colors, and are well on their way to making some noise come March.

But to put that signature bow tie on this magical season, the Beavers must avenge last year’s second-round exit in the NCAA tournament. No Beaver player wants to remember that game against Gonzaga last March, but OSU must not let it happen again.

This season is going to go down as one of the greatest women’s basketball teams ever at OSU, based on their winning success. However, unlike last season this year the Beavers must send these seniors out on a high note. They have given so much for this program, building it up from the ashes, and they must use this momentum to make a deep run into the NCAA tournament.

The Beavers were held short of their dream last year, by not being focused, and not being able to handle success. This year though, the Beavers have a completely different mindset.

The one thing that I have noticed about this team this season compared to last?

They are all smiling again.

Flash back to the press conference following OSU’s win over USC in the first round of the Pac-12 tournament.

As head coach Scott Rueck prepared to answer questions for the media, he had the look of a kid at Christmas about to open the biggest present under the tree.

As that press conference wore on, Rueck’s smiling persona warranted a question from a reporter.

She asked Rueck if there was a particular reason why he was in such good spirits on the sideline.

Rueck’s response was one that was slightly delayed due to the amount of laughs that were shared between Weisner and senior center Ruth Hamblin, but eventually he gathered himself and constructed his answer.

“I’m a happy person, and they were allowing me to be,” Rueck said. “I just love coaching this team, and why not be happy?”

Simply put, Rueck’s demeanor is an allusion for something bigger. His leadership, tenacity, and coaching skills were on display this season, in the Pac-12 tournament. Even after OSU defeated UCLA, the Beavers were not done.

They feel that they haven’t even started.

After the final buzzer had sounded, after the confetti had fallen, and after Pac-12 commissioner Larry Scott handed Rueck and Co. the trophy, the Beavers took a moment to reflect on what had just happened.

For the fans, and family of the Beavers, they saw something after the game that had become a routine for OSU this season.

Smiles. Laughs. Hugs.

It was a dream come true for the Beavers, and they deserved every bit of the recognition that they were awarded.

As the orange-clad fans began to file to the exits, Rueck, Weisner, Wiese, and Hamblin made their way to the depths of Key Arena for the final press conference of the weekend.

The most popular topic on the table was how high the limit is for the Beavers.

It was a fair question, as the Beavers are still looking to improve off of last seasons early NCAA tournament exit. But the difference this year compared to last is the Beavers are making their own luck.

They aren’t hoping to win going into games, they are going in with the mentality to dominate.

“We’re not satisfied. Even with this victory we’re obviously going to enjoy it today, but then come tomorrow and the next day we’re going to start preparing for whoever we’re going to face in the tournament,” Wiese said. “So I think that’s been the different mindset that we’ve had all year is just never relaxing and always staying hungry.”

One can only speculate just how far this Beaver team can go in the tournament this year.

After all the Beavers lost to now-No. 2 Notre Dame by one point and were on the cusp of winning that game. They also went toe-to-toe with opponents in the Pac-12, the No.1 RPI conference in the country, and came out of conference play with a mere two losses.

Outside of powerhouse Connecticut, I don’t think there is a team in the country that is going to stand in the way of OSU wanting to cut down more nets.

The checklist of this season continues for OSU: Win a Pac-12 title? Check. Win a Pac-12 Tournament title? Check.

The Beavers have accomplished so much this season, but yet they must remain humble and keep their eyes on the prize.

A trip to the Final Four in Indianapolis.

The magical season isn’t over yet for the Beavers, and as long as they are playing their best basketball of the season, there is no reason why we couldn’t see this Beaver team playing in Final Four in April.

It’s a long ways off, but the Beavers believe it’s possible.

Rueck was later asked Sunday if he feels that this OSU squad is constructed to be a Final Four team.

“I do. I think you look at the best teams, they’re typically the best defensive teams. This team is just a nightmare to score against,” he said. “They score from inside. They score from outside. They have experience. They’ve been there. This team has played against everybody and played well against everybody, and they’ve played storied programs and storied venues, and they haven’t even blinked. You just have to have the right people and I think we do.”

With such a statement of support for his team, it seems like the Beavers have all the confidence in the world, and must channel positive energy to end this season in a much more happy place.

Now the Beavers have to ride that confidence to the ladder below the net in Bankers Life Fieldhouse.

Rueck believes it, the Beavers believe it, I believe it.

Do you?

On Twitter: @b_slaught

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