Every season, there is an inevitable and necessary growth process that teams go through.
Some years, that growth isn’t as easily detected because of the experience returning to the team.
That was the case for the Oregon State women’s basketball program as the Beavers rose to national prominence and a trip to the Final Four in 2016.
Losing three starters and five players overall from that team a season ago was tough, but the Beavers still had enough leadership that the growth process wasn’t always visible.
“It was always the same people so it was not as significant, you couldn’t tell it as much of how much people have grown because always the same people were on the floor," current senior Marie Gulich said. “It was just very consistent and everyone knew the system here really well."
But losing four more players after last season, the Beavers were bound to have a steeper learning curve this season.
“This year you can just see how much people are growing and getting mature and getting to understand the game and the system,” said Gulich, one of three remaining players — Katie McWilliams and Taylor Kalmer are the others — to be a part of the Final Four team.
“Like (coach) Scott (Rueck) always says, our system is fairly complicated and I agree. It’s not easy to step into this system and be good right away. You have to understand what is demanded and I think right now we’re at the highest.”
Even with so much turnover and inexperience entering the season, Oregon State is once again among the top teams in the country.
The No. 12 Beavers enter the final weekend of the regular season with a 21-6 overall record and entered the final weekend tied for third in the conference with UCLA at 12-4.
OSU is two games back of Oregon and a game back of Stanford in another tightly contested race for the Pac-12 title, which the Beavers have won or shared the last three years.
The Beavers face Arizona at 7 p.m. Friday and close out the season at Arizona State at 1 p.m. Sunday.
“One through 10, or however many we have that night, to see them all compete with that same intensity, that championship level intensity now and to adapt to what it truly demands, is exciting,” Rueck said.
A fourth title is still possible but not likely.
Still, this team has achieved as much of not more than some of the past years’ teams.
“A year ago we’d been through the cycle so many times with that group that you were kind of waiting for the big moments and you understood each week what it took and you knew the group understood, the leadership understood, everybody understood what it takes,” Rueck said.
“This team has really had to grind week after week where it’s like every day is an adventure. Every day is pivotal and every drill is pivotal and every moment and conversation matters.”
Coming off a home sweep of the Los Angeles schools, including a 67-64 overtime win over then-No. 7 UCLA, the Beavers may be playing their best basketball of the season.
That’s certainly true defensively.
“(We) are more aware of where’s the ball, where’s my player, where do I have to be where can I help,” Gulich said. “I think that just showed during the UCLA game and the USC game that our awareness is much better.”
Rueck said the team’s toughness has also grown and showed his team 10 clips from this past weekend that exemplified that aspect by either fighting through contact or out-battling someone for a 50-50 rebound that they would have lost earlier in the year.
“I think this past weekend did a great job in preparing us going forward, not just into this weekend but into the postseason,” Rueck said. “We had to hit a different level of physicality this weekend and we did. I was really proud of the team for demonstrating the toughness.”
With so many questions entering the season — who would step up in a leadership role, who would play the point and how would the Beavers be defensively, among others — it could have turned out to be a rough season.
So if you had told Rueck this team would be in the position it is now, he would have taken it.
“I think we are a team that clearly believes that we can beat anybody,” Rueck said. “All you want is a chance like that. If the team is believing that and doing what it takes, you’ve got a shot every night.
“I’m proud of the courage it’s taken for this group to get here. It’s hard and they’ve welcomed the challenge and embraced it and overcome a lot of obstacles and here they are with a chance at the end.”