We Wanna Be Number 1

Oregon State's women's basketball team worked tirelessly to get to where they are today—No. 1 in the Pac-12 Conference.
by March 05, 2015
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In June 2013, Oregon State unveiled a glittering new basketball facility, just across the street from Gill Coliseum. The complex was replete with four floors and two regulation-length basketball courts, and through its windows, one could see trains passing along the tracks that cut through campus. A standout feature, as noted by Oregon State’s official athletics website, was the two-story glass atrium, “strikingly beautiful at night.”

In addition to its aesthetic aspect, the atrium provides a glimpse into the first-floor practice court, which is used by the Beavers women’s basketball team. And around 9 p.m. this past Thursday, or roughly an hour after Stanford had played spoiler and, through a 69-58 victory, scuppered a chance for OSU to clinch its first-ever outright Pac-12 women’s regular-season title, one saw Beavers sophomores Gabby Hanson and Sydney Wiese on that court, putting up jumpers.

Scott Rueck, head coach of OSU and architect of one of the most thrilling rebirths in recent hoops memory, had spoken to the events surrounding that particular evening. Here was a team on the cusp of history, facing a perennial power (the Cardinal had won at least a share of the past 14 conference crowns). The Beavers hadn’t beaten the Cardinal in 28 games. This time, Stanford had the added luxury of playing spoiler. It was a perfect storm.

Still, Rueck wanted more. It was the first time all season he could remember watching a team hungrier than his own. Beavers juniors Jamie Weisner and Deven Hunter, who sat alongside him in the post-Stanford press conference, shared the sentiment. Hunter’s eyes were red, Weisner’s voice low. This was just the fifth loss for Oregon State since January 31 of last season, and they took it hard.

“Stanford is a really good basketball team, but we didn’t play our best,” Rueck said. “I can take a loss, but we have to play right. I didn’t feel like we had our ‘it.’ But our group isn’t satisfied with that. They’re warriors, and they’ve responded correctly to every bit of adversity they’ve faced over two seasons. They get back into the gym, and set about fixing it. I anticipate that they’re going to respond to this one. And that is unique.”

Before this season, Wiese remarked that when she’d head to the gym to hoist shots this summer, Weisner was already there. This team was hungry. The losses last season, to USC in the Pac-12 tournament championship game, then to No. 1 seed South Carolina in the second round of the NCAA Tournament, had shown they belonged on the national stage. Now, they wanted more.

As Rueck said after the South Carolina loss, “I’m motivated right now—I want to get back at it. I can’t wait to watch this team work this offseason. This is a pivotal time for us. This team has continued to learn from each lesson this season.”

Said Weisner, seated alongside Rueck on the podium, “We’re going to work this offseason.”

“We decided we had goals,” said Hunter, a 6-3 junior flex forward who, along with 8.2 points, 7.3 rebounds and 2.9 assists provides unquantifiable helpings of heart and soul. “Last season, we’d seen what we could accomplish,” Hunter said. “We knew together we could make an impact.” Enter a Twitter hashtag: #WWBN1 (We Wanna Be Number 1.)

Hunter, who grew up about an hour north of campus in Keizer, is one of two Oregon natives on this season’s roster. She grew up making trips to Corvallis to visit her grandparents, who live in town. “It felt like some place I’d been before, so I was always comfortable,” she said.

She spoke after the Friday practice, following the Stanford defeat. Rain pattered against the windows of the gym. This team’s response, a metronome beating steady, might be attributed to the personality of the players.

To her left, 6-6 junior post Ruth Hamblin was cycling through a series of post moves with her dad, who’d come to visit from Canada and was throwing entry passes with either hand. Weisner and Ali Gibson, a senior guard, were shooting jumpers on a side basket. Wiese talked with Rueck at midcourt. Yes, practice was over, but the work wasn’t yet complete.

All part of the reason why this place, for Hunter, has come to feel like home.

***

This year, everything’s new.

Rueck sat on a plush chair in his office, situated on the second floor of the practice facility. He was speaking about trajectories and expectations, the kind that come in a season in which your program has become a fixture in the top-10. There is a different feel when you’re coming up, the nation discovering your team. Maybe it’s more fun. It’s certainly a rush. Now, Oregon State’s success has grown to where they are expected to beat Stanford.

“That’s not easy to manage. That’s hard,” Rueck said. “You’ve got to make sure that you continue to have that hunger. You have to ask yourself: are you appreciating everything? Are you grateful for the whole thing? That’s probably been our biggest hurdle this year, making sure we don’t take this stuff for granted. You can become a machine.”

They went into Chapel Hill in mid-December to take on North Carolina, then ranked sixth in the country, and emerged with a comprehensive 70-55 victory. Twelve days later, they went neck-and-neck with Tennessee on Pat Summitt court. “That was special,” Rueck said of the span. “That was everybody all-in. When you see a group performing on-a-mission type deal, what’s better than that? That’s why we do this.”

When Oregon State is clicking, they enter the rarefied sphere of programs that, even though you know what’s coming, execute with a precision that leaves you helpless all the same. “This whole thing has been put together with the expectation that we want to be elite,” said Rueck. “When you expect that, you’re going to rise to that challenge.”

Jonas Chatterton has a unique perspective on this growing elite-ness. For the past three seasons, as an assistant coach for Colorado, he’d prepped against Oregon State in Pac-12 play. With each passing year, he noticed a team that kept getting better.

Now Chatterton is a first-year OSU assistant coach. “We have weapons at all five places on the floor, so that makes us really hard to guard,” he said. “Defensively, I think we’ve been really good with our discipline. And that’s the whole thing, when you start scheming, you have to have buy-in and execution. And for the most part this year, I think we’ve done a really good job of that.”

He refers to the culture Rueck has implemented. “I tell recruits this all the time: these guys come to practice every day, and it’s not a dread. We compete, we go hard, but we enjoy practice—which is really rare,” said Chatterton. “This team enjoys each other at a level that’s pretty special.”

When they met about the Stanford loss, two choices were outlined. Said Chatterton, “We can put our head down, or we can go to work and keep progressing. And one thing I think has been really cool, is that we’ve never discussed what we’ve done, where we’re going. We go to work. It’s, ‘Next day, get better.'”

Rueck had a sense that his team would respond to the Stanford loss. And facing a dangerous California team on a sun-drenched Saturday afternoon in Corvallis, Oregon State did just that.

***

When Rueck led George Fox University to the Division III national championship in 2009, capping a 32-0 season, he returned to Newberg, OR, to find a town unfolding to celebrate the team.

“The next thing you know, we’re having parades, we got keys to the city, and we come in limos and the town is lining the streets,” Rueck said. “I saw this team—this small group of people—and the influence it could have on a community.”

Rueck is an Oregon State alumnus, and he knew from his experience as a student that Corvallis would provide similar support. It’s impossible to go more than a block in the downtown area without bumping into orange and black.

“My vision was to create and build a program with people, from staff and coaches to players, that our community would be proud of,” Rueck said. “They’re great role models, and we can impact the community and inspire as many people as possible. At least put a smile on their face. Now, we have a team full of not just very good basketball players, but they play, compete and live in a way that is fun to watch. Like, I’m going to go out of my way to watch this group, because what they do is special. They may not win every night, but they are going to love the way they compete.”

An hour and a half before tip-off against Cal, Wiese emerged from the OSU locker room, a level below Ralph Miller court at Gill Coliseum. This 6-0 guard, jokingly described by her teammates as “half human, half dinosaur,” walked toward the stairs that would take her to the main level. Along the way, she passed two seated security attendants.

Came the exhortation: Go get ’em. Get your game face on!

To which Wiese merely chuckled. Then, as she ascended the stairs, she slapped an Our House poster on the wall, the letters painted in orange and black. She was wearing the same long-sleeve, white T-shirt of her teammates. On the back was written:

Gibson
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Leave No Doubt

Gibson. The lone senior on this season’s roster, like Alyssa Martin the year before. As she made her way to midcourt with her family, in attendance for Senior Day, the first four teammates she passed threw up the Katniss Everdeen salute. An homage to their leader, whose confidence in this program had convinced many of them to commit to it.

Rueck had spoken the previous afternoon about the challenge this day presented. Getting back to who we are, what got us here. Playing with that passion, putting a smile on the face. When we’re doing our thing, I don’t know if there’s a more fun team to watch in America.

So it went with Wiese, who hit seven of nine threes against the Bears. Gibson left no doubt with two emphatic blocked shots. And Hanson, whom many refer to as Oregon State’s sixth starter. We need to get her going, Rueck had said on Friday. Against Cal, Hanson ignited the flame. Twelve first half points, three rebounds, two assists. The across-the-board production she’s known for. Consummate knowledge of schemes on either end, replete with an ability to riff when need be.

“I couldn’t take her off the court,” Rueck would say afterward of Hanson. Added Chatterton, “I can’t think of a better sixth man in our league. It’s part of the buy-in. On this team, everyone fills their role.”

Oregon State beat the Bears on the trot, 73-55.

Rueck has reiterated the importance of recruiting: assembling a group that will go to any length for each other. It’s why Martin, in attendance for Saturday’s game, was invited down to the net-cutting ceremony commemorating the outright Pac-12 title. Her former teammates knew they wouldn’t have arrived at this point without her.

“It’s an emotional day,” Rueck said in his press conference. “This is a team that deserves to win at this level. You’ve got to be grateful.”

Rueck was asked about taking this job in 2010, whether he thought he’d be able to lift banners like he had at George Fox. “I never knew if I’d be able to cut another of these down,” he said of the net. “I hoped. To be here in five years…it’s so hard to do it this quick. It’s a grind, and this is remarkable.”

Gibson sat at the press conference with a net draped around her neck. Wiese was next to her, offering up sound bytes of gold: It’s a lifestyle. We wanted to shock the nation.

For Rueck’s first home game as Oregon State head coach, 1,562 showed up at Gill Coliseum for a sizable victory over Long Beach State. This season, OSU averaged 4,167 per contest, the Pac-12’s best tally. On Saturday, 6,238 souls were in the stands, never far from trembling under the weight of stamping feet. The decibel levels rivaled that of a rock concert.

Glimpses of the past, as well as the future. Katie McWilliams, a blue-chip recruit from nearby Salem signed with Oregon State for next season, was in attendance on Saturday, as she so often is for OSU home games. She stood in the Gill Coliseum foyer at halftime, and referenced Wiese. Yes, she’s a tremendous shooter, but she’s also a terrific facilitator, McWilliams noted. See: her four assists against Cal.

That’s one of the reasons McWilliams wants to come to Corvallis. These players are muli-faceted, and the skill development is superb. “I kind of compare myself to Sydney,” said McWilliams. “I think she’s pretty unselfish herself. She could score more than she does, but she passes. And that’s the way I am: I like to pass first.”

Asked about McWilliams, Rueck said, “I know what works well with me, and I know what works well at Oregon State, the type of person that would appreciate what we have here, who would appreciate what we do as a basketball team. The type of person who can take care of her teammates, and is selfless. When you look at Katie, I think people who know our program would say, Perfect fit. We find that, and we go all-in to try and get that player. And once we get them, the sky’s the limit.”

Now there is a team, 26-3 heading into this week’s Pac-12 tournament, at which they’ll hold the No. 1 seed. They’re ranked No. 8 in the country.

Reward, after so much hard work. On to the next possession, the next play. As Rueck will tell you, that’s what life is all about.

Image Courtesy of Karl Maasdam, Oregon State Athletics