Three of the last four seasons, the Oregon State women’s basketball team has reached the Pac-12 tournament title game.
That’s the goal once again, but for the Beavers, winning a second tournament title in three years is just part of the motivation.
No. 10 Oregon State, the third seed in the tournament that opened Thursday, will take on No. 6 seed Arizona State at 8:30 p.m. Friday in the quarterfinals at KeyArena in Seattle.
It’s the first time in four years the Beavers aren’t the tournament’s top seed.
And while the Beavers are focused on one game at a time and want to continue to grow, they know they likely need to make some noise in the Pac-12 tournament in order to host the first two rounds of the NCAA tournament for a fourth straight year.
“We don’t know what the situation is exactly. But if we can get two wins this weekend, obviously we want to go all the way, but at least two wins this weekend would put us in a good spot,” junior guard Katie McWilliams said.
Senior Marie Gulich, who is coming off a career-high 36 points in a win last Sunday at Arizona State, said the Beavers have a great opportunity to make their case on the court this weekend.
“This is another tournament where we can prove how good we are,” said Gulich, who has won back-to-back Pac-12 player of the week honors. “At this point nothing is given to us and we just have to fight for everything. I’m not like counting on having the first two rounds here in Corvallis. Obviously I would love to have those two rounds (at home).”
After winning three straight regular-season titles, the Beavers finished tied for third with UCLA at 14-4. They are 23-6 overall and have been ranked in the AP poll every week this season.
Still, the strength of schedule and RPI — one of the main metrics the NCAA tournament selection committee uses for ranking teams — have not been as good as years past.
Coach Scott Rueck said the RPI, which was at 33 following Wednesday’s games, is a confusing number compared to many others he has seen.
“For what we’ve done to this point, there’s no other rating anywhere that has us lower than 12th,” Rueck said Wednesday afternoon, just before the team took the bus ride to Seattle. “RPI is the only thing out there that has us lower than 12th in the country. If it’s the top 16 that hosts, then we’re in that. We would love to be back in Gill.”
The Beavers enter the Pac-12 tournament on a seven-game win streak and have won 12 out of 14 games with those two losses to Stanford and Oregon, who are No. 16 and No. 6 in this week’s AP poll.
Rueck said the NCAA tournament should strive to have teams that are playing their best at the end of the season.
“If that’s the case, I think this team, playing in this conference, absolutely deserves to host,” he said.
While there is no certainty of what it will take for the Beavers to have that opportunity, winning in Seattle will not hurt their chances.
And winning has been what the Beavers have done in three of the last four years.
The Beavers lost to USC in the title game in 2014, then were upset in the quarterfinals in 2015 before rebounding to win the title in 2016. They reached the title game last year before falling to Stanford.
That postseason experience, as well as back-to-back trips to the Sweet 16, and having fun have been key factors to the recent success in the Pac-12 tournament.
“The lights are a little bit brighter and all those things but our team has had, with the one exception, the ability to block out a lot of those distractions that aren’t relevant to what we’re trying to accomplish and just go out and play good basketball,” Rueck said.
McWilliams agrees: “I think just keeping our heads. Obviously when you get up there it’s a little nerve wracking playing on a different court, every one’s fighting to get to that championship game. We’ve executed really well up there and we’ve just got to keep doing that. This year our team’s a little bit different but we’re going to go in there with a fight of want to win that tournament.”
While there is always room for growth, McWilliams and Gulich both made that clear Wednesday, the Beavers have been playing some of their best basketball heading into the start of the postseason.
It’s the progression Rueck expects to see out of each of his teams.
“They are built for the postseason and our teams, the season never tends to get long for us because we have fun every day,” he said. “That’s why we work so hard on the culture and the character of who our team is so that when it comes to March, you just want more. You don’t want this to end and that’s where we are now. I’m excited to watch this team compete in the postseason.”