by Matthew Snyder

There’s 11 players sitting in a locker room, weighed down by defeat.

We’re minutes past the end of the Pac-12 women’s tournament championship game at KeyArena, where Southern California has pulled off a 71-62 win over Oregon State. The Beavers’ 11-game win streak, marked by precision and domination, has come to a thudding end.

Just past a curtain loom sets of hooded eyes. But for the occasional scraping of plastic cutlery across plates of post-game meals, it’s silent.

Who ever wants to eat at such a time?

And then, out of the vacuum comes Gabby Hanson. The 5-11 freshman wing sweeps past the partition and into the adjacent tunnel. She’s exuding this ineffable air of confidence.

See, she explains, you didn’t see what happened when this team first came off the court, when frosh post Breanna Brown was the first to speak up as they lumbered into the locker room. Just keep your head up, we have such a long ways to go, and it’s gonna hurt but we’ve gotta keep pushing. For her to feel comfortable enough as a freshman to say something in that setting tells you something about this team.

Then junior guard Ali Gibson, the fiery orchestrator on both ends of the floor, piped in.

Remember what happened to Cal in last year’s conference tournament. They lost in the Pac-12 tournament semis, and they made it to the Final Four.

So, Gibson says in closing, why not us?

Now here’s where the eyebrows arch. Oregon State? Final Four? When did they emerge as a power?

It’s been a recurring theme this season. Most pundits took a passing glance at this season’s rostera senior, a junior…and nine underclassmen?—and gave OSU, at best, a chance to finish in the top half of the conference. Well, maybe top 8 would be safer. This would be a season to gather experience, they reasoned.

Then, they could make a run.

But here’s the thing about this bunch of Beavers. They’re not too concerned about what the nation thinks. They’ve been carving a name for themselves since the Junkanoo Jam in November, when they went toe to toe with national power Penn State. Or in late December, when No. 2-ranked Notre Dame came to Corvallis, and escaped with a win.

Sydney Wiese, one of four freshmen on the roster with Hanson, has been touting the NCAA Tournament as a goal all season.

Their head coach, Scott Rueck, loves that. He loves how there’s this inherent confidence in each of them. It’s one of the first things he looks for on the recruiting trail. Eighteen years as a head coach has given him a keen sense of what works. And he knows that confidence plays.

A funny thing has happened in Corvallis this season. A young team began to believe, to the tune of a rollicking winning streak that helped key a 23-10 record (13-5 Pac-12, t-2nd). The Beavers’ 14 home wins were the most in program history.

“Coach Rueck told us from Day 1, ‘Yeah, I get that you’re freshmen, but you’re going to have to grow up really fast to play in this league. I know we’re putting a lot of pressure on you guys.’

“But they knew we were capable of overcoming that,” says Hanson, who averages 21.0 minutes per game. “They knew what this team was capable of accomplishing.”

That’s why the loss to USC hurt so much. Oregon State built a commanding 33-26 lead at halftime on the strength of crisp offensive execution and a stifling 2-3 zone defense that thoroughly frustrated the Trojans. Then, straight out of the break, they’d been subjected to a withering full-court pressure defense that had irrevocably turned the tide.

But wounds inevitably heal. When Hanson was asked in that KeyArena tunnel about this game, you got the sense that she couldn’t wait to get back out on the court and begin a new winning streak. That’s been one of the most amazing things about her, says Rueck. Nothing really fazes her.

So she spoke of lessons learned. So did her teammates.

And, with this season as evidence, haven’t they been learning them well.

***

There are so many wrinkles to this tale, so many different roads that could help explain what is, really, the best story in women’s college basketball this season.

But Hanson seems like a pretty good place to begin.

Asked about Gabby (her full name is Gabriella) Hanson’s maturity, Rueck says—and this is only slightly in jest—that you could drop her anywhere in the world, and she’d not only find a way to survive.

She’d thrive.

Take the summer of 2011. Hanson had just finished her sophomore year of high school, and she finds herself on a bus with a bunch of Swedish basketball players.

In Sweden.

I remember just sitting there, and it was so nerve-racking. All of these girls are speaking in Swedish, and I have no idea what’s going on, but I tell myself, I’m here for one thing, and that’s to play basketball. Hopefully, the friendships will build.

Hanson is sitting in the lobby of the Westin Seattle as she recounts this memory, how she came to play international-level basketball on the other side of the world.

There’s the father. Decades ago, Jorgen Hanson, a native of Malmö, decided that he’d take a trip with a few buddies to the West Coast of America. He ended up in Venice Beach and enjoyed it so much that, when the time came for him to head back to Sweden, he figured he’d just make the move permanent. He found work as a bartender—he delights in telling a story about a frequent patron who left tips in excess of $600—and supplemented his income as a bouncer on weekends.

Eventually, he became the vice president of operations at Pasta Mia, a supplier to restaurants. He’s worked there for almost 20 years.

Jorgen played just about every sport growing up except basketball. But her mother, Sharon, played one sport. Guess what it was. “So you can see where that comes from,” Hanson says of her chosen path, laughing.

Sharon played in an adult league in Orange County, and ever since she was young, Hanson remembers being around the sport.

Pernilla, Hanson’s older sister by five years, began the international connection with Sweden. “Somehow, my dad got in contact with some people over there, and he was like, ‘Pernilla, do you want to play for the Swedish national team?’ And my sister was like, ‘Sure.’”

When Pernilla returned from her first trip, she told Gabby how much fun she’d had. From that day on, Hanson thought, “I have to go and do this.”

It was a way for her to connect to her roots. She’d been to Sweden twice, once when she was very young, the other just a few years before that first tournament in ’11.

“It’s really important for me to get that part of me and understand my heritage,” Hanson says. We didn’t grow up speaking Swedish, and we don’t know how, and we’re so angry at my dad for that! But he thought it would be too hard having an American mother, and just totally confusing.

“But I don’t want to let that part of myself end with nothing. I want to know my background. It’s such an honor, and it’s been one of the best experiences I’ve had so far with basketball.”

Pernilla traveled with her for her first trip to Sweden. When she goes now, her grandparents, who still live in Malmö, can come down to watch. They love that. Her grandfather, all of 76 years, drives them down.

She adjusted to an entirely different system, but given her background, the Swedish coaches gave her sufficient leniency to flex her individual flair. Sometimes, her teammates would watch Hanson perform some feat and remark, star-struck, “You can just go and do things.”

That’s how it is, Hanson would reply with a smile. You learn to play within the framework, but sometimes you can go and create for yourself. Her coaches encouraged that change of pace.

The experience has led to lasting friendships. She considers that first tournament, when she traveled to Cagliari, Italy with the Swedish U16s, to be her favorite basketball memory. She led the team in steals and assists, and finished second in scoring and rebounding.

For the past two summers, she’s played with the U18 Swedish team, and she’s kept producing. In Croatia for the European Championships last August, she led the team in rebounds, assists and steals. She grabbed double-digit boards in three games.

She helps teammates brush up their English, and in turn they help her become more familiar with Swedish. When she returns home, she can say certain phrases to her dad.

“And the smile on his face…he’s so happy,” Hanson says.

The international requirements meant that Hanson spent the majority of her high school summers away from home. She’d take her finals early, spend the summer in Sweden, and return just days before the start of the new academic term.

And she wouldn’t miss a beat.

***

When asked about what sealed it about Oregon State, Hanson responds like many of her teammates.

The coaches. This place. Hearing Beaver Nation surge and swell at Reser Stadium, envisioning the sea of orange at Gill Coliseum. It wells up within you into something emphatic.

This feels right.

But let’s backtrack to that summer of 2011, which would turn fateful in more ways than one. When Hanson returned from Sweden, her Troy High School coach, Roger Anderson, had news.

Oregon State had been on the phone in recent weeks, and this assistant coach, Eric Ely, had kept asking about Hanson.

In sitting down to lunch with Ely, Anderson got a sense for the family atmosphere this staff was intent upon cultivating. He ran his Troy teams the same way, and Anderson felt sure that Hanson would thrive in Corvallis. Here was a self-driven player, “a different breed,” who never shied away from work. As a freshman, she’d acclimated quickly to the Troy varsity in large part because of her commitment to defense. Veteran teammates raved about that.

“She’s not one that likes a situation where it’s individual before team, and you never got that feeling with Oregon State,” says Anderson.

Hanson had wanted to play in the Pac-12 since she’d watched Candice Wiggins star for Stanford. But she’d never considered Oregon State. In fact, it wasn’t even on her radar. She’d heard the stories about LaVonda Wagner, Rueck’s predecessor, who was forced out after the 2009-10 season, when seven players transferred. It was the last straw in an increasingly worrisome line of antics and departures.

So this program was rising from the ashes? Wouldn’t it be fun to help carry that torch of resurgence? She wasn’t afraid of taking the leap. Her time with Sweden might have helped with that.

Pernilla had played on teams with girls who’d picked Oregon State, only to transfer out from under Wagner. When they asked Hanson about the recruiting process, she’d tell them she was leaning heavily toward the Beavers. They’d shake their heads and respond, “Ohh…” She didn’t know what she was getting herself into.

That gives you a sense of the task that Rueck had ahead of him when he took the reins at his alma mater (Class of ’91.) He had to win back hearts and minds. He had to start with a threadbare roster. For his first two seasons, all he ran was zone defense.

But noise began to build, and players began to take a second look. It took a certain type of person to commit to this project, but that was what Rueck was looking for. He wanted kids who shared his vision for returning Oregon State to prominence.

That began with building strong relationships. For Hanson, it clicked immediately. So often on the recruiting trail, pitches sounded like a recorded telephone message. This is what we’re about. If you like it, great. If not…

Click.

“That’s not what a player wants to hear,” says Hanson. “This is where you’re going to spend the next four years of your life. It’s one of your most important building stages. You want to grow as a player, but you also want to grow as a person.”

It was during the ’11-12 season, Rueck’s second season, when the Beavers went 20-13 and advanced to the third round of the NIT, that Hanson remembers thinking, “Wow. This is a team that’s really going to surprise a lot of people. What a great team to be a part of, the coming-up.”

Hanson took her unofficial visit to Corvallis after that season, in the spring of her junior year. She remembers thinking, Man, this is where it’s at. She verballed on the spot. In her senior season at Troy, she went with Anderson to watch Oregon State play at Loyola Marymount. She saw where she could fit in, and then she went and worked on what would help her do just that.

This past summer, she participated in Oregon State’s Bridge Program with the three other incoming freshmen. By the end of their first day together, Hanson says, snapping her fingers for emphasis, they felt as close as sisters.

For Rueck and his staff, who’d poured themselves into the recruiting trail in order to create this exact type of dynamic, it must have been some kind of fun to behold.

Then, Hanson went to play with Sweden. Busy has never bothered her.

***

At what point does a season turn? Sometimes, it can be hard to tell.

And yet, with the ’13-14 Beavers in mind, there are always moments that float to the fore.

Take the Civil War weekend. Facing their in-state rival, Oregon, twice in a four-day span in mid-January, OSU rattled off their first two conference wins of the season in thrilling fashion. Six-six sophomore post Ruth Hamblin notched a triple-double in the home game.

It was Hanson’s breakthrough. When she wasn’t playing savvy defense on Ducks frosh sensation Chrishae Rowe, she was knocking down shots on offense.

Two weeks after the thrill of the Oregon weekend, the Beavers traveled to the desert. Wiese’s home state of Arizona. In the weekend opener, they led Arizona State by five points with just over a minute to play.

Then, calamity.

The Sun Devils pressured, and Oregon State wilted. Before they knew it, they had the ball down by two, with just 1.2 seconds left to play. Jamie Weisner received a pass on the left wing, and she hoisted a three that looked good…until it caromed off the back of the rim.

Weisner is one of the fiercest competitors you’ll ever meet, a sophomore who’ll head to the gym, set up cones, and shuttle through drills that augment her defensive footwork. When she missed this particular shot, it felt like the world rising up and falling within her.

She marched off the court and slammed her left fist into the nearest thing she could find, which happened to be a metal door. Broken bone. Surgery. Out indefinitely. Looking back, Hanson says that moment made this team rally around Weisner, their leading scorer. “To see her reaction…seeing how much she felt like she failed the team…I know for me, I was like, ‘I never want one of my teammates to feel like they’ve got that much pressure on themselves,’” says Hanson.

So many teams focus on Weisner, Hanson reasoned, so what better way to toy with them than have all these other pieces step up. What if Weisner returned to a better team?

That Arizona State game was the last straw. All season, the Beavers had been learning lessons, taking their medicine. Now it was time to turn the table. They are 11-1 since that evening.

For Weisner—remember that burning drive—sitting out was tantamount to torture, but she channeled that excess energy. She sent her teammates a Snapchat of her “bench stats”—times jumped up in jubilation, high-fives, defensive assignments relayed, etc. She must have averaged a triple-double, she jokes.

When she returned against Utah in the first round of the Pac-12 tournament, she made defensive stops, chased down rebounds and hit all manner of jumpers. It was as if she’d never left.

At some point during the winning streak, Oregon State began to take the next step. Something clicked in the film room. Scouting reports were devoured. These girls began to relish the prospect of shutting down an opponent. “They’re finding joy in defense, which makes me happy because that’s the end of the floor I love,” says Rueck.

And when you fuse hustle and grit to that exuberance…

That’s the thing about Hanson and Weisner and the rest of this bunch (blink, and you’ll miss any one of them go screeching past in pursuit of a loose ball.) They’re as likely to hit a big shot as they are to dive to the floor. They’ll deflect plaudits and praise. 

“These are life lessons,” says Rueck. “You work hard, and you get rewarded. It’s so much fun to watch this team learn to love this game at a level they never thought they could, and then gain confidence in their own abilities.

“They’re figuring out, Man, if I focus and work and concentrate like this, I can do anything.”

***

As Oregon State cruised to the Pac-12 tournament championship game, Hanson struggled with her shot. Against Utah and Washington State, she was a combined 1-of-13 from the floor, and 0-of-4 from three.

But Rueck wasn’t worried. To describe Hanson’s effect, he brings up a game of H-O-R-S-E. You might beat her in that competition, he says, but if it’s the heat of an actual game, she’ll hit more shots than you. “That’s just in her nature,” he says. “And the rest of her game is elite.”

That reminds Rueck of this past summer, when Hanson was away with Sweden at the U-18 European Championships in Croatia. Each morning, Rueck would fire up the tournament’s official website and check Hanson’s stats, only to double-take when he crossed the shooting figures. Hanson finished the competition 1-32 from three.

Rueck recalled the memory during a late-season post-game presser. “I’m like, Oh, man, come on Gabby, knock a shot down, you’re more than capable.”

During her recruitment, Rueck had watched Hanson’s compact form and flicked release, and told her that she had a great shot. Hanson would respond, “I mean, it’s OK.”

Hanson’s confidence is part of what makes her so effective, but it took time for her to warm up to her shot. And when she did, Whoa. She’s hitting 41 percent of her threes this season, and has shown a knack for the cold-blooded variety late in games. “It’s been awesome to watch her get over that hurdle,” Rueck said. “But she’s just such a competitor that the will to win eventually overcame that [doubt].”

Hanson led the conference in three-point percentage (45.5 percent) for the regular season.

Hanson plays three positions for Oregon State, and frequently handles the ball and directs traffic on offense. She is as comfortable defending an opponent’s best scorer as she is using a quick fake before driving hard to her left and hitting a mid-range jumper.

She’s helped Oregon State to the best field-goal and three-point percentage defense (Rueck’s favorite stat) in the conference. With the 6-6 Hamblin serving as a safety valve in the low post, ready to swat anything that comes her way (4.03 blocks per game), Hanson and the rest of the Beavers’ defenders can afford to jump passing lanes and play more aggressively. That leads to poorer shots from the opponent.

In a given game, like the Pac-12 quarterfinals against Utah, Hanson will switch seamlessly between guarding a post and a wing. Rueck believes she’s the team’s best perimeter defender, and when you combine that with her on-court persona—she doesn’t take anything from anybody—you begin to get a sense for her production.

“I never know what’s going to happen on offense, so what I really take pride in is stopping the person in front of me,” Hanson says. “That’s so controllable for me. And I think that’s what really hypes a team up, when you can get huge defensive stops.”

Says Gibson, who hosted Hanson on her official visit to Corvallis, “She’s very competitive. But we clicked because we have the same personality. She’s always down to have a good time or goof off, too. It fits in perfectly with our team.”

That’s what you want in a player, says Rueck. These girls are the nicest people you’ll meet off the court, but once they step between the lines, there’s a fire that doesn’t stop burning until the final whistle goes.

Asked if she’s surprised at how quickly Hanson has adjusted to the pace of Pac-12 play, Gibson offers an anecdote. At the beginning of this season, Hanson would feature for the scout team as the opponent’s best player. “Then she’d hit these amazing shots, and you’d think, OK, I think she has something. If she gets her chance, she’ll step up. She’ll make big plays.”

Hanson averaged 3.4 points and 2.4 rebounds in the non-conference portion of the season. In Pac-12 play, she boosted those averages to 9.7 points and 5.2 rebounds. She scored in double figures in eight of the last 10 regular-season games. When her chance came, she seized it.

That’s exactly what Gibson hoped to see. Freshmen stepping up. Before this season, the lone junior met with Alyssa Martin, the only senior. They discussed ways to lead this team, and reasoned that since underclassmen would predicate any success this team would have (they’ve accounted for 82% of the scoring), they’d erase any rites of initiation or hierarchy. They’d dealt with those things themselves, and they didn’t see the benefit.

So they told the new charges, ‘We’re not gonna treat you like freshmen,’” says Gibson. “We needed them to perform. And they just came in so bold.”

That was music to Hanson’s ears. She doesn’t see age, only commitment. It’s been that way since she was a freshman at Troy High.

***

The four years Rueck has spent at the helm in Corvallis must feel like a lifetime.

There are generations within this roster. There’s Martin, who came on board for Rueck’s first season knowing full well what she was getting into. Then Gibson, the lone commit in the next class. She’d only known winning at the prep and AAU level, and yet she picked Oregon State. She wanted to be there for the turning of the tide.

On March 4, Senior Day in Corvallis, the community showed their appreciation. They packed Gill Coliseum to the tune of 5,208 souls, the biggest crowd in recent memory.

Wiese remembers waiting in the tunnel, ready to trot back onto the court before the start of the second half, when sophomore post Deven Hunter tapped her and told her to look up.

There was a sea of orange, and it was roaring its thanks.

It gave all of them goosebumps.

There’s something to be said about tunnels. An hour and a half before the Pac-12 championship game, Oregon State prepared to head out onto the KeyArena court for their shootaround. Martin donned her Beats headphones and began to run…only to find Mary Murphy, a television analyst who covers the Pac-12, blocking her path.

As Martin slid her headphones off, Murphy told her how inspiring she found her story, how she’d joined this program as it was rising from of the ashes and stuck with it through the taxing seasons that followed.

There’s a reason this rebirth has been so thrilling. Look no further than Martin for why. “I always say, We owe a lot to Alyssa,” says Hanson. “She could have left when everything was happening, but she stayed.”

Rueck can tell when a team really cares. If not, losses like the one to USC don’t settle in your gut. His final post-game presser at the conference tournament was testament enough.

“There was a sense of mourning, because this team has done everything right,” Rueck said, voice trembling and eyes misting. “When you stick yourself out on a limb like that, and you invest everything you have and you care about each other and it doesn’t go your way, it hurts.

“These are champions in my book, with the way they carry themselves. This is an incredible team that’s learning and getting better every day, and that’s not going to stop.”

A season is a soundtrack, each song a little bit different in tone. Yet themes weave their way through. For Oregon State in ’13-14, it was growth. It was confidence. And oh, was it thrilling, the way they ate up scouting reports, compiled that excellent record at home, and embraced the expectation of postseason play.

In the conference tournament, instead of wallowing on the bench, players stepped up when their number was called. A marker of winners. When sophomore Samantha Siegner checked in for the first time against Utah, she immediately combined strong post defense against Utes leading scorer Michelle Plouffe with some serious offensive skill.

“That’s one of the nice things about this team,” says Rueck. “We’ve got a lot of places to go, and everybody’s producing right now.”

It’s hard to pinpoint a moment when everything began to sharpen into focus, says Hanson, furrowing her brow as she tries to describe the indescribable. This it.

“We have all these things…we have a retreat, we switch roommates up throughout the season, but there’s so many other things that contribute to it,” she says.

“I think it just happens. It can also just be that the coaching staff brought together a group of girls that they knew would click. Who’d be there for each other and fight for each other.”

As Hanson begins to rattle off defensive assignments and describes the benefits of hard work, you find yourself taken aback.

I mean, this is a freshman.

But then you remember, this is an Oregon State freshman.

And that makes a world of difference.

***

Now here’s where it gets really fun, because what’s better than the Tournament?

After the loss to USC, Hanson had already been raring for the next step, when the Beavers would play in the NCA—

She caught herself. Maybe did a mental knock on wood. She didn’t want to appear overconfident about the Beavers’ post-season chances.

This past Monday relieved any of those worries. Just before 4 p.m. PST, the Beavers gathered with family, staffers and local community members for the NCAA Women’s Selection Show. A roar erupted when they saw their name unveiled. It’s the first time OSU has gone dancing since ’96. There should have been an ESPN camera assigned just to watch Wiese jumping out of her chair, the spitting image of jubilation.

Oregon State earned the No. 9 seed in the Stanford regional, and will face No. 8 Middle Tennessee State in…you guessed it, Seattle. Once again, KeyArena beckons.

For Hanson and her teammates, that means a chance to wash away some of the bitterness of that loss to USC. To show the nation that they’re ready to win, Now.

Anderson, her high school coach, says that she has only touched the surface of what she’s capable of doing. You can’t help but root for a kid that works so dang hard. It wouldn’t surprise him if she ends up as a team captain.

Then, there’s the Olympic dream with her sister, Pernilla. Since they’re five years apart, they’ve never been able to play on the same team. But if they could help Sweden qualify, some summer down the line…

First things first.

Gabby Hanson wants to win some NCAA tournament games. She wants to keep paving this orange-and-black road to redemption. And then, when this season has come to a close—later, rather than sooner—she’ll go back and analyze what she needs to improve.

And she’ll spend the whole summer doing just that.

Photos courtesy of Dave Nishitani.