SEATTLE -- "I want to know what it feels like to win a championship."
Sydney Wiese says the words softly to no one in particular, as her teammates buzz around the locker room, reciting typical halftime one-liners like "Don't let up!" and "Be ready for them to come out with a lot of energy!" and "Just 20 more minutes!" Wiese joins in for a bit, then snaps her gum and stares at the whiteboard.
A freshman for the Oregon State women's basketball team, Wiese came to Corvallis, Ore., to win titles. After finishing as runner-up three times in the Arizona high school state championship, the 6-foot guard is sick of smaller trophies. Now, with a 36-29 halftime lead over Southern California in the championship game of last week's Pac-12 tournament, Wiese is close. As she jogs out of the locker room, someone yells, "We can sleep on the bus after we win this thing!" Wiese smiles. "We can sleep in the confetti," she adds, heading for the court.
Full-court pressure from USC rattles Oregon State in the second half as the Women of Troy claw back for a 71-62 victory and an automatic berth in the NCAA tournament. But one week later it is Wiese and Oregon State, with 23 wins, who are on the verge of becoming the best comeback story in college basketball. Four years ago the Beavers were left for dead as allegations of abuse by former coach LaVonda Wagner crippled the program. After a rash of transfers, OSU had just two players on the roster. But on Monday, OSU is expected to receive an at-large bid to the NCAA tournament, its first trip to the Big Dance since 1996. Oregon State features a freshman point guard who chomps on gum while setting three-point records, a 6-foot-6 Canadian who practices dunking after shootarounds, and a 5-4 former Division III coach who when he introduces himself to people often gets asked, "You're the head coach?"
Bracket projections have OSU seeded anywhere from a No. 8 to a No. 11, though coach Scott Rueck has no idea what to expect because "we're still trying to become a household name." It's an ambitious goal for any program not named Connecticut or Tennessee, but especially for a school that wondered four years ago if it needed to shut down the program entirely.
Rueck, a 1991 Oregon State graduate, wasn't looking to move when the school called in June 2010. Years before Rutgers' Mike Rice started a national conversation about coaches abusing players, Wagner made headlines around the Northwest when reports surfaced that she had mentally and emotionally abused people in her program, pressuring athletes to play through serious injuries, demanding players pay for and participate in Weight Watchers, and once throwing a chair that almost hit a player during a locker room rant. In the spring of 2010, seven players and an assistant coach abruptly left, prompting OSU to launch an investigation. On June 1, Oregon State fired Wagner without cause, leaving the university on the hook to pay her the remaining $1.2 million of her contract. With just a month before recruiting season, Oregon State went into scramble mode.
When he hired Wagner five years earlier, Oregon State athletic director Bob De Carolis had an hourlong conversation with Rueck and came away impressed. In 14 years at George Fox University in Newberg, Ore., Rueck had built a D-III powerhouse. The highlight came in 2009 with 10 freshmen, one senior and no returning starters, as Rueck led the Bruins to an NCAA title and a 32-0 record, the first D-III women's team team west of the Rocky Mountains to win a national championship. Now, with Oregon State's program in shambles, De Carolis decided Rueck was the guy, even though he had no prior Division I experience.
"For whatever reason, Division III to Division I is a model that has worked for us," says Marianne Vydra, the Oregon State senior women's administrator who chaired the hiring committee. Oregon State baseball coach Pat Casey, who led the Beavers to the 2006 and 2007 national titles, also prepped at George Fox (the school's athletic director joked after Rueck's hiring that he was thinking of renaming GFU "the Oregon State farm system") -- and Beavers football coach Mike Riley has small college roots, too.
"There were people who said, 'What are you thinking?'" Vydra says. "But if you can recruit to D-III, where they don't have scholarships, we believed he could get it done here."
That Rueck came cheap -- he initially signed a five-year contract for $140,000 his first year -- was a bonus for a cash-strapped athletic department.
Rueck admits that before his first conference game of the 2010-11 season, he worried his team would "get drilled every night by 30 and it would be the longest two and half months of our lives." But at Arizona State on Dec. 31, then-freshman Alyssa Martin shot a three at the buzzer that would have sent the game to overtime. Traditionally one of the best programs in the west, Arizona State often delivers dominant performances in Tempe. Instead, ASU squeaked by with a 49-46 win. Two nights later at Arizona, the Beavers again took it down to the wire, falling 67-65 to the Wildcats.
"Even though we lost a lot that season, we were so close," Martin says. "We knew it was going to take time to grow a culture, and to learn how to win."
Fast forward four seasons, and Oregon State is playing Arizona State in its last conference game with the No. 3 seed in the Pac-12 tournament on the line. It's celebration day for Martin, the lone senior on OSU's roster. In the players-only, pregame dance, freshman Gabby Hanson cries out, "Let's win this one for Alyssa, 'cause she never gave up on this program!"
When Oregon State first fell apart, De Carolis seriously entertained the idea of shutting down women's basketball for a year. The Beavers had just two returning players. But Rueck resisted the proposal, instead hosting an open tryout in late August. A variety of skill sets and ages arrived in Gill Coliseum, including a local 47-year-old who told coaches she held her own in community league, so why not try it at this level?
Rueck and his staff -- he only had time to hire two assistants and went through the first year short a coach -- took a few players from open tryouts, brought back the two returners and breathed a sigh of relief when four players who had signed letters of intent under Wagner stayed committed. Included in that group was Martin, a Portland native whose father, Earl, played for legendary Oregon State basketball coach Ralph Miller.
OSU won just nine games in 2010-11, including two memorable Pac-12 victories. The first, at Washington, sparked a celebration "like we had won the national championship," assistant Eric Ely recalls with a chuckle. The second, a win over rival Oregon, hinted at type of comeback this program was capable of. Down 20 at halftime against the Ducks, OSU stormed back, and in what has become the Beavers' calling card under Rueck, played stifling defense to pull out an improbable 61-59 victory at home.
Adorned with signatures from 2010-11 team and the words "Never give up!" the box score from the Civil War comeback now hangs in Rueck's office.
"When I first got the job, people were very welcoming," Rueck says. "But I remember a lot of them said to me, 'Good luck, I'm scared for you.' I think we had a pretty clear view of how hard this was going to be, and I loved that about it. Nobody expects anything, and nobody thinks you can win at Oregon State, so let's go prove them wrong."
Picked to finish eighth this season, the Beavers looked to be on track for about that after blowing a seven-point lead at Arizona State on Jan. 31 in the final 1:42, ultimately falling 64-62. Their conference record stood at 4-5. Worse, their best pure scorer was lost for the regular season. In a fit of frustration, sophomore guard Jamie Weisner punched a metal door on her way into the locker room, breaking a bone in her left hand, an injury that required surgery.
Oregon State's roster is stocked with polite, charming, girl-next-door types -- players sing along during the pregame dance in the locker room but fall silent during the four-letter-word portion of Kanye West's hit "Gold Digger" -- but after Arizona State "we finally got ticked off," Rueck says. The Beavers were flawless without Weisner, reeling off eight consecutive wins heading into the rematch with Arizona State. Though she is OSU's best option in the clutch, the Beavers were better without Weisner defensively, holding teams to 33.6 percent from the field in her absence, compared to 35.3 when she plays.
Before ASU, Rueck doesn't feel the need to give some overhyped pregame talk about "we owe them!" or "let's make a statement!" His only acknowledgment of what's at stake is a drawing of two pony-tailed stick figures fighting over a "3."
"I used to have to give three motivational speeches a day -- and that was just during practice," Rueck says, walking to the court. "This group doesn't need it."
In the game, sophomore Ruth Hamblin turns in a dominant performance (16 points, eight rebounds, seven blocks) as Oregon State controls both ends of the floor to run away with a 66-43 win over the No. 20 Sun Devils. In the team huddle afterward, Rueck tells the team "Look up," and their eyes travel to the rafters, where a season-record 5,208 have come out to watch OSU's first win over a ranked team in 51 tries. With big, goofy smiles stretched across their faces, they turn to wave thank you.
The following week, the Albany Democrat Herald printed a piece from an Oregon State fan, a self-described "glutton for punishment," who said he regularly attended OSU men's games, but had not been to a women's game in almost 20 years. Rueck's group had "gradually forced me to pay attention to them -- not just because the Beavers were accumulating wins, but because from what I was hearing and reading, they were doing so while playing a cerebral, enthusiastic, overall appealing brand of basketball."
It was just what Rueck wanted to hear.
"Reading that gave me validation," Rueck says "We talk about not just capturing the women's basketball fan. A team like our should capture a sports fan, whether they're old, young, male, female, whatever. I want people who only ever go to football to come watch us play and say, 'Holy crap, this is amazing, I can't wait to watch this team again.'"
Mark Campbell needs a shot of caffeine and a full night's sleep, but he doesn't believe in one and doesn't have time for the other. The Beavers easily dispatched Utah, 50-35, in the quarterfinals and Washington State, 70-60, in the semis, leaving only USC between OSU and an automatic berth in the NCAA tournament. Campbell, OSU's associate head coach, and the rest of the staff have spent three nights in a row up until 3:30 a.m., studying video, looking for the smallest detail that could give them an edge.
Campbell had been coaching with Randy Bennett and the Saint Mary's men in Moraga, Calif., when Rueck called. One of the top recruiters on the west coast, Campbell had no interest in coaching women. The Gaels had just completed a Sweet 16 run and were poised to continue to challenge Gonzaga for West Coast Conference supremacy. But because he is married to arguably the best guard to ever play Oregon high school girls' basketball, Ashley Smith, and because his father-in-law is Brad Smith, one of the most revered high school coaches in the country, Campbell appreciates the women's game. Another selling point: He and his family wanted to get back to the northwest. Campbell listened to Rueck's pitch, bought into the belief that they could find a way to win in Corvallis and got to work.
"I got hired in the middle of July, so I immediately went out on the road," says Campbell, who worked late nights with Rueck and slept in the locker room their first month on the job. "The first half of the recruiting period I was watching guys dunk on each other, and the second half I was watching girls shoot layups. It was like going into a foreign country. I didn't know the name of a single recruit or travel team."
OSU's first signee under the new regime was Ali Gibson, a 5-11 guard with a funky shot who prepped at one of the best high school programs in the West. Her first inclination that the Beavers would be good came on Jan. 7, 2012, when Oregon State led No. 4 Stanford 35-31 at halftime on the road. The Maples Pavilion crowd sat in stunned silence as OSU shot 65 percent the first half. At one point, an exasperated Stanford fan threw up his arms and shouted to the Beavers, "Who are you?!"
"At halftime it was like, 'Hey, let's take a picture of the scoreboard," Gibson laughs. Stanford would go on to win, 67-60, but Gibson says the message was clear: "We could do this, and we were gonna fight."
"On my recruiting trip, Scott talked about taking down 'the big dog.' In high school, I played for the big dog, I was part of a team that was always expected to win," says Gibson, who led St. Mary's of Stockton to three California state titles. "I would watch teams score upsets at state, beat teams they weren't supposed to and think, 'That would be really fun, to be part of something like that.'"
In the semifinals against Washington State, Gibson drains five threes. During postgame, she laughs with her teammates about an opposing player who wears too much makeup, much of which has rubbed off on Oregon State's white uniforms. "I can't believe we're going to the championship," says assistant coach Mandy Close, shaking her head, "and talking about makeup."
After USC snaps OSU's 11-game winning streak, the Beavers' locker room is full of tears and hanging heads. On the whiteboard, Rueck's pregame message still resonates: "There have been NO shortcuts to get here," he wrote, "and there will be NO shortcuts in this game." When she looks around at her teammates, Bre Brown doesn't like what she sees.
A 6-3 post from Oakland, Brown's the type of rookie who will tell a veteran they have no moves in the pregame locker room dance session, then demonstrate how it's done. She plays sparingly, but has no problem speaking up.
"Everyone better get their heads up right now," Brown says. "We've already done so much, and no one expected this from us. We've still got somewhere to go. There's more for us."
In their first practice after the USC loss, Rueck spends an hour going over video clips, then pokes his head outside and says, "You've got some visitors." In the gym, 100 fourth graders and nearly 30 chaperones who have traveled from central Oregon take a seat on the floor and pepper players with questions. "How tall are all of you?" (together their heights nearly equal a seven-story building) and "Can any of you dunk?" (Hamblin is close) and "Did any of you play basketball in the fourth grade?" (Wiese's hand shoots up in the air.)
Then, the team flips it around, asking the field trippers how many games they think Oregon State won that year. "Fourteen?" one guesses. "Five?" ventures another. Players laugh, and shake their heads. At the beginning of the season, Rueck talked about "winning the crowd," building a product that would make fans fall in love. When the postseason started, he broadened the goal. "We need to win the nation," he told his players. It's not about selling themselves as the best comeback in college hoops; it's about proving they're one of the best stories in sports.
But if the fourth graders are any indication, there's still some work to be done.