CORVALLIS — Defense and rebounding have been Oregon State's calling cards all season. That and some good fortune got the Beavers past Long Beach State Friday at Gill Coliseum.
The eighth-ranked Beavers (30-4) survived as tough a test as a No. 2 seed can find, claiming a hold-your-breath 56-55 first-round victory in the first round of the NCAA women's basketball tournament.
The 15th-seeded 49ers (23-11) came within a missed open jump shot from the foul line by top scorer Raven Benton in the closing seconds of a colossal upset.
"It's 2/15 (seeds), but throw that stuff out the window," Oregon State coach Scott Rueck said. "When I saw the draw, I thought, 'Tough matchup. We're going to have to play great to win it.' That's what it came down to."
Only the Beavers didn't play great.
Using their huge size advantage — Long Beach State's tallest starter was 6-1 — the Beavers owned the boards 44-29, including 26-12 in the first half. They held the 49ers to .339 shooting and blocked 10 shots, but neglected to guard the 3-point line. The 49ers — who shot .326 on 3-point attempts through the regular season — bombed in 10 of 18 shots from beyond the arc Friday, and that helped keep them in the game until the final horn.
Conversely, the Beavers — who fired at a .378 clip from 3-point range this season — managed only 2 of 16 on 3-point tries, in no small part due to Long Beach State's defense on point guard Sydney Wiese. The Wooden Award finalist and four-time all-Pac-12 selection was crowded and pushed across 94 feet of hardcourt through her 33 minutes, at times with box-and-one coverage. Wiese finished with seven points on 1-for-8 shooting — all from 3-point range.
"We tried to throw everything at her but the kitchen sink," Long Beach State coach Jody Wynn said. "What makes her so special, she's so good with the ball in her hands, but she's also so good with the ball not in her hands. She's so smart — a coach on the floor.
"We tried to stay under her, run some different people at her, jump her off ball screens and make somebody else make a play. We bothered her. You're not going to just stop her. She has some pretty darn talented kids around her, so it's not just a one-player show. But we tried to keep her off balance and make the other players be thinkers."
It was similar to the scene two weeks ago in Seattle, where Stanford focused most of its defensive attention on Wiese in a 48-43 championship game at the Pac-12 tournament. In both games, teammates were often reluctant to shoot, overpassing and running the shot clock down in halfcourt offensive sets. They were thinking instead of reacting to take shots they should take.
Oregon State had 13 turnovers — 10 in the first half, none for the next 16 minutes and another three in the final four minutes on Friday. Rueck said a big part of OSU's shooting and ballhandling problems were due to the 49ers.
"You guys aren't giving Long Beach any credit," he admonished reporters during the postgame press conference. The 49ers "are really good defensively. Nobody plays like they play. They pressure and get after you. They have the athletes to do it, and do it very well. You have to give them a lot of credit for that.
"Long Beach was awesome. An absolutely phenomenal performance by them. (The 49ers) played like they had nothing to lose. They shot the ball incredibly well from '3' and really scrapped defensively."
Wiese didn't score until making her only 3 with 2:38 left in third quarter. That gave the Beavers a 40-34 lead, which would be their largest of the afternoon. There would be no further separation. The 49ers hung around, and gave themselves a great chance to win at the end. By the grace of the basketball gods, the Beavers prevailed.
"It wasn't a prayer," Wynn said of Benton's attempt at a game-winner. "You want the ball in her hands. She's our killer. She's won a lot of games for us."
Wynn felt justice wasn't served with Friday's outcome.
"I told (her players) we deserved to win the game, and I think they felt the same way," the 49ers coach said. "It was a heck of a game. This is what March Madness is about. There was a little madness out there.
"Beaver Nation didn't know what hit them. (Friday's game) has been everything we've dreamed about except for that final score. Our kids played with heart and hustle. They left their DNA all over the coliseum.
"I think the scoreboard was a little bit of a liar."
The scoreboard doesn't lie. Oregon State advances to face Creighton, a winner over Toledo in Friday's second game, in Sunday's second-round matchup at Gill for the right to move on to the regionals in Stockton, California.
If the Beavers don't play better than they did Friday, though, there won't be a berth in the Sweet Sixteen.
Rueck is one of the premier coaches in women's basketball, a deserving Pac-12 Coach of the Year recipient this winter. I admire what he has done with what was a moribund program when he took over seven years ago. He's a bit of a miracle worker, in fact.
But Rueck left himself open to some second-guessing Friday.
Oregon State had a foul to give at the end of the first half but didn't use it. The 49ers took advantage, Benton knocking down an open 3-point shot at the horn to give the visitors a 30-29 lead at intermission.
The Beavers, clinging to a 56-55 lead, had three fouls to give at game's end. Rueck, who said he liked the time situation — 35 seconds left on the game clock, 30 seconds on the shot clock — chose not to use them.
"We chose not to foul," Rueck said. "We could have, and probably should have."
But Hanson intentionally fouled Benton with 14 seconds left when beaten on a drive to the basket. That took the shot clock off.
In that situation, you're risking free throws if the opponent is fouled in the act of shooting. Even so, I'd trust my players to foul the opponent before she can get a shot off. Do that twice and the game is over, and you're not at the mercy of a shot beating you just before the buzzer.
Rueck also held all-Pac-12 center Marie Gulich out of action for the final 14 minutes. Gulich finished with only 10 points on 4-for-10 shooting with four turnovers, and Oregon State found success feeding power forward Breanna Brown in the post for layups in the fourth quarter.
"I thought about going back with Marie early in the fourth quarter, but … each game takes on a life of its own," Rueck explained, offering a game last season in which he left ex-Beaver center Ruth Hamblin out long minutes late against Stanford as an example. "That just seemed right today."
But the Beavers were mostly swimming upstream on offense. Gulich is OSU's No. 2 weapon behind Wiese. I'd have given her another shot.
Rueck is right about one thing. You can't force more shots out of Wiese if they're not there. You have to trust her teammates to hit open shots.
"You'd love to get her more open looks," Rueck said, "but part of that is what they give you. Our advantage was inside in this game, and we had a hard time getting the ball down low early. Then we missed some shots, which hurt our confidence. We had a hard time getting into any flow."
This season's Beavers are as good as last year's crew that reached the Final Four in the areas of defense and rebounding. They are much more challenged at the offensive end.
The Beavers need to be more aggressive in the open court. Only once Friday when they had numbers on the break after beating Long Beach State's press did they force the action to get a fast-break basket. Freshman Mikayla Pivac, in particular, is capable of driving and scoring in transition. Pivac and senior guard Gabby Hanson — who has been in a season-long funk offensively — must press the issue more.
The Beavers also need more from Katie McWilliams, the 6-2 swing player who returned after missing the entire Pac-12 tourney with a concussion. McWilliams is a capable 3-point and perimeter shooter who suffered through a sophomore slump after scoring 29 points in the season opener against Lamar. She scored seven points in 20 minutes but missed three of four attempts from beyond the arc.
Rueck is a coach who exudes in positivity, and he chose to look through green-colored glasses on St. Patrick's Day.
"All season, we've found ways to win games," he said. "Once again, the team played through adversity, played through Syd not shooting the way she typically does, and found a way to win."
Indeed. But it was too close for comfort, and closer than it should have been against a No. 15 seed, undervalued or not.
"We take every game as a lesson," Brown said. "We try to take those lessons into every game we play in the future. This is definitely one of them. Thankfully it turned out in our favor."
Next time, the result may not be so fortuitous.