Fans at MKA

An Orgeon State fan braves the throng of Oregon fans during Friday night's women's basketball Civil War at a sold-out Matthew Knight Arena. The No. 3 Ducks fended off the No. 9 Beavers for a 77-68 win. The teams meet again Monday at Gill Coliseum, who is also sold out.

Eight years ago, if you had told me the Oregon State and Oregon women’s basketball teams would be playing on ESPN’s Big Monday in mid-February and both teams would be legitimate contenders to make it to a Final Four, well I would have laughed in your face and said you were out of your mind, or something to that effect.

I wouldn’t have been alone, either.

The Beavers were a program in shambles and barely fielded a team in Scott Rueck’s first season in 2010-11.

Oregon was also struggling as a middle- to bottom-of-the-pack team in the old Pac-10 Conference with no real sense of elevating beyond that point.

But that is exactly where we find ourselves today.

With Rueck at Oregon State and Kelly Graves coming in five years ago at Oregon, these two programs have not only been at the top of the conference standings but are now considered perennial top-10 teams.

“Pretty amazing,” Rueck said after his No. 9 Beavers dropped a tough 77-68 decision to the No. 3 Ducks at Matthew Knight Arena on Friday in a game that wasn’t decided until the final two minutes.

The atmosphere was electric from the start as 12,364 fans packed the arena. And the game didn’t disappoint.

“This state, the Northwest in general has really supported women’s basketball for a long time, girls basketball and women’s basketball,” Rueck said. “They’ve been waiting for programs like this to support. I knew when I took the job at Oregon State that if we built a program worthy of people they would come.”

And just think, we get to do it all over again at 6 p.m. Monday when Oregon heads to a sold out and orange-clad Gill Coliseum looking for the season sweep.

Oregon State senior Katie McWilliams, who played at South Salem, has been around to see the change.

“It’s just amazing that we’re able to bring in so many people, especially here in Oregon,” she said. “Oregon and Oregon State have never been the top teams in the country but now we are so we bring in a ton of people and it’s so cool to see them surrounding our programs. So the environment was awesome (Friday night) and I know it’s gonna be almost even better at Oregon State.”

For one of these programs — it appears Oregon has the best chance at this juncture of the season — the road to Final Four won’t even leave the state.

Yes for the first of two consecutive years, one of the four NCAA regionals will be held at the Moda Center in Portland.

How great is that?

Now, I realize there are allegiances to one team or the other and it’s hard for fans of one program to really feel good about the success of the other.

I get that.

But man what a story these two programs are writing on the national landscape of the women’s college basketball.

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I vividly remember a photo that we ran of Jamie Weisner six years ago after a tough home loss to Washington State in overtime.

It was Weisner’s freshman season and the Beavers were in the midst of a 10-21 season after the team made the Sweet 16 of the WNIT the season before.

The exhausted look on Wesiner’s face as Molly Schwegler is almost guiding her off the court proved to me that Weisner was not about to let the same thing happen the next season.

We all know what happened next — the Beavers made the NCAA tournament and haven’t missed it since.

By the time Weisner was a senior, the Beavers won the Pac-12 title for a second straight season, won the Pac-12 tournament title and advanced to the Final Four before running into Connecticut.

I am convinced if the Beavers had been matched up with either Syracuse or Washington, they would have played for a national title.

Many may have thought that would be the end of the run for the Beavers with — what was at the time the most decorated class in program history — so much talent leaving, including Weisner and Ruth Hamblin who were both drafted in the second round of the WNBA draft.

But instead of being the end, it was really just the beginning. Sydney Wiese went in the first round of the WNBA draft the following season as the Beavers won a third-straight conference title and reached the Sweet 16.

Then it was Marie Gulich going in the first round last season, one that saw the Beavers make it back to the Elite Eight.

There’s no doubt now that the Beavers are anything but a flash in the pan as they are once again a top-10 program and a destination for top recruits.

While Oregon’s rise has been more recent, keyed in part by juniors Sabrina Ionescu and Ruthy Hebard, the Ducks have advanced to the Elite Eight the past two seasons and are poised to make their first Final Four.

And with how the Ducks are playing, barring an injury or a game when three or four players have an off game, I’d be shocked if they didn’t.

What will be interesting for me is what happens once Ionescu, the main cog that makes the Oregon offense run so efficiently, is no longer with the program.

That could come as early as next season should the junior, who is eligible to declare for the WNBA draft because she will turn 22 this year, decide to forgo her senior season.

She is projected to be the No. 1 overall pick by the Las Vegas aces by just about all mock drafts.

The loss of Ionescu, whenever it happens, will no doubt be a blow and it begs the questions: Will the Ducks be able to maintain the level they are at now?

While she will be difficult to replace, no doubt, I have a feeling the Ducks will be around for some time to come, making it appear that Friday night and Monday night won’t be one-time occurrences.

And for that, we should all be excited and should all enjoy this time as college women’s basketball in the state of Oregon is at an all-time high.

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Steve Gress is the sports editor of the Albany Democrat-Herald and Corvallis Gazette-Times. He can be reached at steve.gress@lee.net.


Sports Editor

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