Oregon State used 3 points shooting early, free throw shooting down the stretch, and defense all night to upset Baylor 60-57 in the final of the Dallas regional Monday night, and advance to their first ever "Final Four" of the NCAA Women's Basketball Tournament.
The 2nd seeded and 6th ranked Beavers, the Pac-12 regular season and tournament champions, made 7 of 13 3 pointers in the first half to take early control, and though they wouldn't make another in the second half, 3 point shooting was still a factor, as the 1 seed and 4th ranked Bears, the Big XII regular season and tournament champions eventually rallied to take a late lead, their lack of outside shooting (they made only 1 all night), left them in the unenviable position of having no answer down 3, after Sydney Wiese sank a pair of free throws to cap a run of 8 of 9 free throw shooting down the stretch.
But right off the bat, things didn't look good for Oregon State, as Baylor jumped to a 4-0 lead, and the Beavers turned the ball over on backwards passes that were only generally in the general direction of Gabriella Hanson.
Wiese righted the ship with back to back 3 pointers though, and Hanson followed with another of her own to cap a 9-0 run, and then Jamie Weisner, the Pac-12 Player of the Year, below, shooting over Baylor's Alexis Jones, scored Oregon State's last 7 points of the first quarter, as the Beavers took a 16-11 lead.
Jones essentially carried Baylor early, with 7 first quarter points.
Still, it was an unsettling start offensively, as Ruth Hamblin not only picking up an early foul, which would become an issue for much of the evening, but also not getting a single close look at the rim, and taking her first 3 shots all from 15 feet out or farther.
"I liked our defensive intensity," Oregon State coach Scott Rueck said. "We kept them out of transition. But we have got to get Ruth going; they kept her out a little better than we would like."
Oregon State finally found Hamblin on a bread and butter low block move early in the second quarter for an 18-12 lead, but both Hamblin and Deven Hunter would get their second personal very early in the quarter.
The "Swish Sisters" Weise and Weisner kept on bombing away though, and so did Hanson, and the Beavers opened an 8 point lead, interrupted only by the 30 foot jacket throwing incident with Baylor coach Kim Mulkey, which resulted in a technical foul, and Oregon State went up 26-18.
Baylor, in the Elite 8 for the 3rd year in a row, answered with a 7-0 run to pull within 1 point, but Hanson and Weisner combined for an 8-0 run of their own, capped by a buzzer beating 3 by Weisner, below, for a 34-25 lead at halftime.
Jones fired up what was essentially a home crowd for Baylor (Waco is almost the same distance south of Dallas Corvallis is from Portland) to start the second half, with what would be the Bears' only 3 of the night, and then another basket, to pull right back within 4 points.
But more importantly, Hamblin also picked up her 3rd personal barely a minutes into the third quarter. That set up one of many key moves of the second half, as Rueck left Hamblin in, and the "Canadian Hammer", below blocking a shot by Brown, responded with a personal 6-0 run, and played nearly 5 minutes more before taking a break.
Baylor responded with another run of their own though, a 9-2 one that notably was capped by 6 straight points, plus a steal, in less than a minute by Khadijiah Cave.
Those 6 point were the only points Cave came up with, but it was a strategic move by Mulkey that got the Bears back within 1 point, and forced Rueck into a timeout with 3:17 to go in the 3rd quarter.
Baylor's halftime adjustments were all on defense, and as a result, Oregon State's perimeter offense, so effective in the first half, essentially evaporated.
Hamblin came back in, and immediately scored, and Weisner then hit jumpers with the shot clock going off on back to back possessions to keep the upper hand for the Beavers.
"We went to full court pressure, and then in the half court, extended to stay matched up with them," Mulkey said. "But give them credit, the kid (Weisner) made shots with under a second to spare."
Hamblin picked up her 4th foul a half minute before the end of the 3rd quarter though, and Niya Johnson's layup made it a 1 point game going to the 4th quarter, with the Beavers up just 48-47.
The Bears' defensive pressure had forced 15 turnovers to that point, and that resulted in 20 points off turnovers.
Wiese got her 3rd foul not a minute into the 4th quarter, and Hunter her 4th just over 2 minutes in, and Baylor got the first points of the final period at the 7:45 mark, on a basket by Kalani Brown, to overhaul the Beavers, and go up 50-49. It would be their only lead of the second half though.
Weisner tied the game at 51 with a free throw, and Wiese sank 2 more, starting the Oregon State free throw parade that covered more than half of the 4th quarter. Indeed, the only basket they made the rest of the way was Hansons' that came after Muleky had made the questionable decision to use her final timeout with 3:55 left.
The game was tied at 51, 53, 55, and 57, but Oregon State's ability to play with poise down the stretch defensively, as well as hit free throws, ultimately proved to be too much for Baylor to overcome.
"They're very aggressive players," Wiese said. "We had to use ball screens a lot to get looks."
Hamblin played the entire last half of the 4th quarter with 4 fouls, and Hunter and Weisner also finished with 4 fouls, and Wiese had 3 for the last 9 minutes of the game.
"It's just incredible," said Hamblin. "We just executed down the stretch, we stayed composed, got some crucial free throws, and we made them to seal the deal."
Rueck was roundy criticized for sitting Hamblin down the stretch in last year's season ending major upset loss to Gonzaga in the second round of the tournament, a tactical error that proved disastrous. But he showed considerable courage in playing Hamblin under pressure tonight, and Hamblin validated that faith with a very mature performance. Both deserve a lot of credit for building from that moment to where the Beavers are now headed.
"Going to the Final 4 is just amazing," Rueck said, "especially given how this game went. But I told them before the game 'You've played the toughest schedule, and in the toughest conference." They were ready for this."
Indeed, the Pac-12 will provide half of the Final 4, with Washington also headed to Indianapolis, after upsetting both Kentucky and Stanford this past weekend.
Jones finished with a game high 19 points to lead Baylor, but the Beavers held Nina Davis, fresh off back to back 30 point performances, to just 11 points. Brown was the only other Bear in double digits, with 12 points.
Weise led Oregon State with 18 points, plus 6 assists, but Weisner was right behind, with 16. Hamblin recorded her 12th double double of the season, with 10 points and 12 rebounds, as well as 4 blocks, this despite playing in foul trouble most of the night.
Hanson also hit double digits, with 10 points Baylor probably didn't anticipate.
The free throw shooting down the stretch capped an evening when the Beavers were 15 of 18 from the line, whereas the Bears were only 6 of 14.
"If you miss that many free throws, your not going to win a game like this," Mulkey said.
Oregon State also out rebounded Baylor 38 to 33.
It was only Baylor's second loss of the season, snapping a 23 game winning streak, but the Bears nonetheless ended their season 36-2, out one game shy of the Final 4 for the 3rd year in a row.
Oregon State improved to 32-4, but now face the biggest challenge in program history; a showdown next Sunday with top ranked Connecticut at 3 PM PDT on ESPN. (Washington's game with Syracuse will follow, at apprx. 5:30 PM PDT.) The unbeaten Huskies (36-0) have won 3 National Titles in a row, and 10 overall, and 22 consecutive tournament games.
But for another week, its still hoops season at Oregon State.
"I coach the most amazing group anyone could imagine," Rueck summarized. "Their vision and mission is to inspire as many people as they can, and they showed that tonight."
(USA Today photos via SBN)