Brooks: Getting ready for the PAC-12 gauntlet

OSU redshirt junior guard Destiny Slocum lines up against a Utah State defender on Dec. 14, 2019 in Gill.

Matthew Brooks, Sports Contributor

This year’s Oregon State Women’s Basketball team is special. After returning ten players from last year’s team that made the Sweet Sixteen, they added two highly rated freshmen and started off with an undefeated start. 

The Beavers ended non-conference play at 12-0, which included a slate of games with multiple matchups against Top-25 opponents.

The team maintains balance across the entire roster. For every one of the combined seven juniors and seniors, there is a freshman or sophomore. While the team has a star-studded backcourt that features the likes of senior guard Mikayla Pivec and redshirt junior Destiny Slocum, it also starts two freshmen in the frontcourt who bring a level of size that can be hard to match.

The starting frontcourt duo includes freshman forwards Kennedy Brown and Taylor Jones, listed at 6’6 and 6’4 respectively. The two freshmen have combined to average 21.9 points, 14.6 rebounds and 3.75 blocks per game during non-conference play. Freshman Jelena Mitrovic and redshirt freshman Andrea Aquino are listed at 6’9, though both Mitrovic and Aquino have not yet played for the Beavers.  

The team started the season ranked No. 12 in the nation. In their first 12 games, they competed with an average of 19.3 assists per game but could counter that by boasting an average of 6.2 blocks per game, which was the eighth highest in the country. They have been one of the best rebounding teams in the country as well, out-rebounding opposing teams by an average of 14.2 boards per night.

“I’ve said from the beginning that I can’t see the ceiling on this group… we’ve had a lot of people step up and it just makes us different,” Oregon State head coach Scott Rueck said. “Weathering [injuries] with these young players, the way that they’re competing, the veteran guards that we have the experience that we have I think we’re going to be a tough out every night.”

All of this added up to a 12-0 record in non conference play, which led to ranking of No. 3 in the Dec. 30 AP poll. The high ranking set a record for the program and illustrates how Oregon State has a legitimate shot to win their first national title. However, one big hurdle looms between OSU and that elusive championship: conference play.

In that same AP Poll, the Beavers received five first-place votes, tying the same amount as No. 2 Oregon and earning more than No. 4 South Carolina. The only team to receive more first-place votes was UConn, who received 19 votes and took the No. 1 spot in the ranking.

As good as the Beavers have proven to be this year, the competition in the conference is stiff. Both No. 5 Stanford and No. 2 Oregon have been the top ranked team in the country this year, and at one point in the season, three of the top-four teams were from the PAC-12.

“It’s just a number for us, it’s cool recognition, a testament to this program and what it’s done in the past…. But we know we have a lot of weaknesses to work on,” Pivec said. “We know that we’re going to have a gauntlet.”

Oregon State, Stanford, and Oregon are three of the PAC-12 teams in recent rankings with UCLA at No. 10 and Arizona at No. 18. Almost half the conference hold spots in the Top-20 teams of Division-I Women’s Basketball.

While there may be a challenging conference schedule ahead, the Beavers have already defeated three teams in the Top-25. DePaul, currently ranked No. 16, came to Gill Coliseum and lost by 21 points on Nov. 14. Missouri State, currently ranked No. 21, was defeated by 11 points in a Nov. 17 matchup at Gill. Miami (FL), who was ranked No. 19 at the time of the game but is now unranked, was taken down by a 22-point margin in Miami.

No matter the challenge that the PAC-12 poses, Rueck is excited to start playing conference games specifically because of the quality.

“The conference is just going to make us better and better as we go through it and get more experience, more different looks,” Rueck said. 

Yes, a national title is a difficult achievement and the Beavers would have to defeat some very talented teams in the way. Yes, the likes of UConn, Baylor and South Carolina are still national powerhouses. However, Oregon State has now worked its way into that conversation.

They just need to get through the gauntlet of PAC-12 conference play.

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