Women's basketball: Loss to Arizona State in 2014 helped fuel Oregon State's rise
CORVALLIS -- There are plenty of benchmark games to highlight Oregon State's national rise to NCAA Tournament regular, repeat Pac-12 champion and Final Four participant.
North Carolina in 2014. California in 2015. Baylor in 2016. Stanford in 2016 and 2017.
But a gut-wrenching evening in Tempe, Arizona, nearly three years ago to the day was perhaps equally important to the program's evolution. That was when the young Beavers surrendered a seven-point lead to No. 15 Arizona State in the final 90 seconds after then-freshman point guard Sydney Wiese fouled out. In the aftermath of the loss, leading scorer Jamie Weisner punched a wall and broke her hand. Then, the Beavers responded with 11 consecutive victories to reach the NCAA Tournament for the first time since 1996.
As this 11th-ranked OSU squad prepares to face the No. 23 Sun Devils Friday night in Tempe, veteran Beavers like Wiese now look back on that night as both "a mess, to say the least" and "a blessing, like usual" that helped fuel their upward trajectory.
"It was another time where, as a group, we were either [going to] become great or it was over," Wiese said. "We didn't really know our identity. We didn't know how to win. All these things we had to piece together. That game was a major turning point for these last couple years, to be honest."
Weisner's swing was the most glaring example of building frustration. Yet senior guard Gabby Hanson remembers a locker room filled with players irritated with their latest close defeat. At that point, the Beavers had lost three Pac-12 games by single digits and even threatened national power Notre Dame, but were 4-5 in conference play and 12-9 overall.
"We were like, 'Man, we had it. We absolutely had it,'" Hanson recalled. "I think everyone was just done feeling that way. Everyone was just done feeling like, 'Man, we're so close.'"
But the Beavers needed more than just a mindset shift. OSU's only senior, Alyssa Martin, slid back into the starting lineup. Increased contributions came from veterans like Ali Gibson and youngsters like Wiese, Hanson, Ruth Hamblin and Deven Hunter. They all developed a collective defensive identity. And while recovering from the bench, Weisner learned she did not need to be the do-it-all offensive player.
The result? The 2013-14 Beavers did not lose again until the Pac-12 Tournament final and then won their first-round NCAA Tournament matchup with Middle Tennessee before falling to No. 1 seed South Carolina. Over the past three seasons, OSU has compiled a 41-5 record in Pac-12 regular-season games, captured at least a share of the past two regular-season league titles, and won the 2016 conference tournament. Oh, and they made a historic run through March Madness. And after being picked to finish fifth in the Pac-12 in the preseason poll, OSU is currently tied with Stanford atop the conference standings at 9-1.
"The difference between being close and winning is significant," coach Scott Rueck said. "That (Arizona State) game put us over the top. We had a lot of confidence from that success, so it made our whole team better ... It was significant."
And OSU's climb has often involved getting past the Sun Devils. The Beavers blew out Arizona State in the 2013-14 regular-season finale, then swept the Sun Devils the following year. Then with the Pac-12 lead up for grabs last season, OSU throttled the Arizona State 67-44 at Gill Coliseum in their only meeting to hold the tiebreaker when they shared the regular-season crown.
Hanson acknowledges that a feeling of "no, we're not losing to you, because we worked so hard to never let that happen again" creeps in every time she faces Arizona State.
The upcoming matchup also brings a sense of reflection for Wiese, causing her to glance up at the Pac-12 championship and Final Four banners hanging on the wall inside OSU's Basketball Center.
When the Beavers lost in Tempe three years ago, those banners did not exist.
Now they do.
"Who knows if we would have won that game and Jamie's fine, what would become of us?" Wiese said. "You can't really think of the 'what ifs?' But when you do, you look back and you're thankful for those periods of confusion and growth, because here we are."
This article is written by Gina Mizell from The Oregonian and was legally licensed via the Tribune Content Agency through the NewsCred publisher network.