Oregon State vs. Tennessee

Oregon State's Ruth Hamblin, middle, battles Tennessee's Mercedes Russell, left on Dec. 19. The Beavers, who lost to Tennessee at home, head to No. 3 Notre Dame on Monday. 

Eugene Johnson, Corvallis Gazette-Times

Scott Rueck always wanted to get his Oregon State women’s basketball program to the level where it would compete against some of the top teams in the country.

But the Beavers' coach knew he had to build a team capable of taking on that challenge.

When Notre Dame was scrambling for a game to fill out its nonconference schedule for the 2013-14 season, Rueck jumped at the chance to take on one of the perennial powers in women’s college basketball.

He wasn’t sure exactly what to expect when the Fighting Irish came to down for a late December matchup in Gill Coliseum.

It turns out, it was a turning point in his building process.

“I thought it was one of the most pivotal games that we’ve played, if not the most, since I’ve been here,” Rueck said earlier this season. “Because that day our team learned that they can play with anyone. That’s what that day was.

"And not only that, it was here. So did our fans. I think it opened a lot of eyes across the country because Notre Dame was a perennial Final Four team and they were very strong that year, had a very veteran team. And we went toe to toe with them down to the last two minutes.”

The Beavers lost that game, as No. 2 Notre Dame pulled away late for a 70-58 victory before a crowd of 4,032.

But it was a catalyst for success as the Beavers went on to finish the regular season with nine straight wins and reach the title game of the Pac-12 tournament before losing to USC.

The Beavers then went on to win a game in the NCAA tournament, the first appearance in the Big Dance in 18 seasons.

Since, the Beavers have scheduled road games against top-10 teams North Carolina and Tennessee, as well as a road rematch with No. 3 Notre Dame at 4 p.m. Monday. Notre Dame is expected to make a return trip to Corvallis in two years.

“With this team and the players we’ve been able to recruit, they want challenges,” Rueck said. “That’s what fuels them. They’re bored if there’s no challenge in front of them. Not bored, but you know what I mean. That’s what fuels this team. They’re very competitive.

“So I knew they would handle the Notre Dame game well. I knew North Carolina (last year) would be fuel, that it would be a positive experience and then throw Tennessee on top of that. A year ago, I knew those would be things they would rise to the challenge, they want that. And I felt like we could handle it. We’re going to learn a lot one way or the other.”

The Beavers have already played No. 14 Tennessee at home this season, a 53-50 setback Dec. 19 that was not only a loss on the books, but OSU lost starting point guard Sydney Wiese to a hand injury that will keep her out indefinitely.

Still, the Beavers (9-1) expect nothing less than being competitive and to battle for a win against the Fighting Irish, who are 10-1 with the only loss coming by 10 points at No. 1 Connecticut.

Whatever happens, Rueck knows the Beavers will see exactly where they are at before heading into Pac-12 play at the end of the week.

“That tells you where you need to go to if you want make another run at a conference title,” he said.

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Sports Editor

Sports editor of the Corvallis Gazette-Times and Albany Democrat-Herald

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