When Oregon State’s women’s basketball team advanced to the Final Four in 2016 for the first time in program history, it was a cause for celebration, obviously.
But the dream of winning a national title was over almost immediately after the victory over Baylor in the Elite Eight had sunk in.
Because Oregon State had to match up with a Connecticut team that was gunning for a fourth straight title and had won 73 consecutive games, all by double figures, in the national semifinals.
“When we went to the Final Four you know you’re playing a Connecticut team that hasn’t lost in four years, it’s almost like what’s the point of this?” Oregon State coach Scott Rueck said Monday night. “Just hand it to them is how it almost felt. You don’t want to believe it but it was almost inevitable.”
It was inevitable as the Huskies cruised to an 80-51 victory over the Beavers before winning the title with an 82-51 win over Syracuse two days later.
But in the past three seasons, the UConn mystique has dwindled some as the Huskies lost in the national semifinals each of the past two seasons and have already suffered two setbacks this regular season.
“That’s not the case at the moment, everybody feels like they have a chance to win it,” Rueck said. “So I think it’s belief, it’s confidence, great coaching and there’s great players dispersed around the country now. It’s an exciting, exciting time.”
Case in point, the number of upsets of teams ranked up and down the AP poll, including numerous in the top 10 and top 5 this season, something that seems to happen almost daily.
The NCAA selection committee released its initial top 16 seeds on Feb. 11 with Baylor, Louisville, Oregon and Mississippi State as the four No. 1 seeds.
A week later, three of the four teams had lost — Mississippi State at home to Missouri, Louisville at home to Miami — with Oregon joining the list a couple hours later after falling at Oregon State, 67-62, on Monday night.
“It just shows that you don’t know who’s the top five, you don’t know who’s the best team in the country right now,” Oregon State senior Katie McWilliams said. “I believe that we’re one of the top teams in the country but they don’t even have us in the top 10. So it’s hard to say.”
The Beavers (21-5,11-3 Pac-12) were the fourth No. 3 seed in the initial seedings, which have no bearing on what the tournament bracket will look like in March but were a snapshot of where teams would be placed if the season had ended on Feb. 10.
Oregon State’s win over the Ducks on Monday shows the players and coaches that it has as much opportunity to win a title as others who may be ranked higher at the moment.
“Obviously we just beat the No. 2 team in the country so where do they put us now,” McWilliams pondered. “But I love it, I love that there’s not a team that is just they’re the top.”
The lone holdover from Oregon State’s Final Four team, McWilliams said its more exciting to know the Beavers have a chance to not only get to another Final Four but to have a chance to capture the title.
“I’m glad we’re a team that can compete with these top teams and it’s just cool to be on a team like that that is capable of playing against teams like Oregon … and we battled with Notre Dame early in the year,” she said. “We can do it, we have that confidence as well because we’ve played in those games and we’ve either won or were close and so we know that we can play with anybody.”
While the loss to the Huskies in the semifinals was definitely painful, it was a great learning experience, one that Rueck still uses to this day.
“We were able to take so much away from that,” McWilliams said. “Scott even brings it up, like Katie do you remember playing UConn? Like how boring they play but how good it is. That’s how we need to play. We don’t need to do all these crazy things, we don’t need to freak out on the court, just be calm, be patient and everything will come together.
“It just showed what a team should look like out on the court and obviously what they were doing works, works really well. So we are kind of like this is what we need to do as well.”
The Beavers are still in position to make a run at a top four seed in the NCAA tournament, which would mean hosting the first and second rounds, and potentially to be placed in the Portland Regional and have a chance to get to the Final Four without leaving the state.
"Like Scott says, he still sees so much more in us and I feel like as the season keeps going we’re going to see ourselves as wow we can do more, we can be better, this is what we can do," McWilliams said. "So I’m really excited just to see. We could be in that Final Four spot, it’s just we've got to keep playing our game, keep preparing like we do and just remember why we’re here and give it our all."