To withstand the onslaught of the Pac-12 women’s basketball season, teams must be able to adapt to different styles of play each weekend and be mentally focused throughout each game.
The Oregon State women’s basketball team has been able to do that the past three seasons, and each one has ended with a regular-season title.
The Beavers are only the second conference team to win or share three straight titles — Stanford has accomplished that feat three different times, including winning at least a share of 12 in a row from 2001-02 to 2013-14.
“It’s been just an absolute grind every night,” Oregon State coach Scott Rueck said Wednesday afternoon, thinking back to his first seven years in the conference.
“This year I don’t expect it to be any different. I like the coaches that we have in our conference. I like how they’ve prepared their teams. It’s all well-thought-out systems and schemes that fit their personnel. You know that you don’t have a night off in that way. You’re going to have to overcome a great scheme every night. That is the fun of it. That’s what we love.”
The No. 17 Beavers, who open Pac-12 play at home against Washington at 2 p.m. Friday, won last year’s title after being picked to finish fifth.
This season, Oregon State was picked fourth behind UCLA, Stanford and Oregon.
“I feel like every year it has been a challenge,” said senior Marie Gulich, a member of all three championship teams. “Every year we’ve had to prove to ourselves and other people that we’re still as good. I’m really excited for it to finally start and then the challenge for us to keep grinding and working hard.”
The Beavers (9-2) are one of the 11 teams that enter Pac-12 play with a .500 or better record. Only Arizona (4-7) is below that mark.
Washington is 6-5 under first-year coach Jody Wynn, who took over for Mike Neighbors after he left for Arkansas.
Wynn was the coach at Long Beach State, which nearly pulled off one of the biggest upsets in NCAA tournament history at Gill Coliseum last season. The Beavers, the No. 2 seed, edged the 15th-seeded 49ers, 56-55, in the first-round game before eventually falling in the Sweet 16 to Florida State.
Eight Pac-12 teams have won nine nonconference games with USC leading the way with a 10-1 record. No. 10 Oregon is 11-2 with No. 11 UCLA, No. 20 California, Colorado and Utah joining the Beavers at 9-2. Arizona State is 9-3.
Washington State, which the Beavers play at 11 a.m. Sunday, is 7-5, while Stanford, which opened the season at No. 10 in the AP poll, is 6-6.
The Cardinal fell out of the poll this week for the first time since the 2001 season (312 straight weeks). Five of the Cardinal’s six losses were to teams ranked in the top 10 at the time.
“It’s hard to tell how we’re going to compete against other Pac-12 schools,” OSU junior guard Katie McWilliams said. “I know we’re all going to be around about even so it’s going to be a battle every night. I know if we’re not on our ‘A’ game we’re going to be in trouble.”
The Beavers have made big strides from the start of training camp to the beginning of conference play. They have grown on both ends of the floor and new players in new roles have stepped up.
Three players are averaging double figures — Gulich (15.4), Mikayla Pivec (13.5) and Kat Tudor (12.5) — with two others — Taylor Kalmer (9.8) and Aleah Goodman (9.0) — close to that mark.
“I like the way we have approached everything,” Rueck said. “They’ve competed with the same expectation that we’ve had here over the years. So that culture of wanting to be great is in place and we’ve competed with that the whole time.
“That is comforting. This team works as hard as anybody and that’s been fun. I think we’ve gotten better as the year has progressed to this point. I think our preseason has really prepared us. We’ve seen a lot of different looks from the different teams and this team has just learned and continued to grow.”
One major area of growth has been on the defensive end of the floor. And while they have shown the ability to put many points on the board — the Beavers have scored 94 or more four times, including 110 once — defense will be the key in conference play.
“We’re not always going to shoot well from the field, especially against good defensive teams, (so) we’re going to have to make it tough for them offensively,” Pivec said. “Even if we can’t score we know we can count on our defense to pull the win out for us.”
Like the nonconference season prepared the Beavers for conference play, the Pac-12 campaign will get them ready for what they hope is another run in the NCAA tournament.
That can be said of most of the conference teams.
“Those who are standing at the end and make it into whatever tournament, you’re prepared for anything you’ll see from anybody,” Rueck said. “That’s the fun of being in the Pac-12. It demands your best, that’s the only option, and you’ll be ready for anything once you get into the postseason.”