Oregon St.-Middle Tennessee Preview
For Middle Tennessee State, the goal is to finally extend its road in the NCAA tournament as an almost annual participant. For Oregon State, simply having the road to get here is one the Beavers don't take for granted.
The two teams at varying levels of program success meet in Seattle on Sunday when the eighth-seeded Blue Raiders face the No. 9 seed Beavers.
Middle Tennessee State (29-4) is no stranger to the field of 64 and is making its 10th appearance in 11 years. The Conference USA regular season and tournament champs ride an 11-game winning streak into this contest as they try to reach the second round for the first time since beating Gonzaga in 2007.
''We've been here and we're used to all this,'' said senior forward Ebony Rowe, who is 19th in the nation in scoring at 21.7 points per game and 12th in rebounding with an average of 11.7. ''The expectation is a little higher this year.''
The senior forward - who had 25 double-doubles in MTSU's 33 games - was dominant in the Conference-USA tournament averaging 25.3 points on 64.4 percent shooting while pulling down 12.6 rebounds per game in victories over UAB, Florida International and Southern Mississippi.
KeKe Stewart handles the perimeter scoring for the Blue Raiders, contributing 10.2 points per game and 35.1 percent shooting from beyond the arc. Middle Tennessee State also plays strong defense, limiting opponents to 55.2 points per game on 36.7 percent shooting, and allowed only eight teams to score more than 60 points.
Oregon State (23-10) nearly suspended its program before the 2010-11 season after allegations of emotional abuse by previous coach LaVonda Wagner resulted in seven players leaving the program with only two holdovers on the roster. Scott Rueck - the Pac-12 coach of the year - suffered through that lean season to post a 9-21 mark, and the Beavers took a quantum leap forward this season, finishing second in the conference and more than doubling their win total after going 10-21 in 2012-13.
''It's been an incredible experience and extremely rewarding,'' Rueck said after guiding Oregon State to its first NCAA appearance since 1996. ''They are so hungry. Motivation is coming from the team now. That wasn't the case previously.''
Guard Sydney Wiese - the Pac-12 freshman of the year - is the team's top offensive option, scoring 14.1 points per game while making 43.5 percent of her 3-pointers. Center Ruth Hamblin, who averages 10.0 points, 8.7 rebounds and 4.0 blocks, will likely take on the challenge of trying to slow down Rowe.
Like Middle Tennessee State, the Beavers play exceptional defense, limiting opponents to 61.2 points per game on 34.9 percent shooting.
The winner of this game will play either No. 1 seed South Carolina or 16th-seeded Cal State Northridge in the second round Tuesday.