Be A Beaver Believer

Last week, the Pac-12 Board of Directors—all two members—announced their plan to part ways with commissioner George Kliavkoff, which is a shame. He was just getting started. The leadership change takes effect at the end of February, so Kliavkoff has a week and a half left to kill, but no media rights deal to negotiate and no inter-conference alliances to forge. If he’s looking for some important Pac-2 business to tend to as he runs out the clock, I have just the task, one even Kliavkoff can’t screw up: Why not take a road trip to Corvallis, reserve the commissioner’s suite at Gill Coliseum, and check out one of the best stories of the college basketball season, the No. 9 Oregon State women?

A record-setting crowd took in the Beavers’ thriller against No. 12 UCLA on Friday night. Thanks to Kliavkoff’s predecessor, this one wasn’t included in my cable package, so I watched the game in mystery mode: scrolling through tweets about the crazy ending, but in an order all scrambled by the Twitter algorithm such that I wasn’t sure who won until I went and looked at the box score. Modern life is amazing. But the ending was only slightly more coherent watched live: Four different shots in the last 15 seconds scanned as game-winners in real time.

UCLA put it away after a three from Angela Dugalic stopped a 9-0 Beaver run, then Oregon State put it away when Talia von Oelhoffen drove to the rim for a quick go-ahead layup, then UCLA definitely won with a Lauren Betts midrange jumper, and then Oregon State actually won, when von Oelhoffen sprung free from Kiki Rice on an inbounds play and beat the buzzer with a catch-and-shoot three. (The school posted a slow-motion Etta James edit of her shot, if you’re interested.)

Everyone expected the Pac-12 to be a strong women’s basketball conference in its swan song year. Stanford, UCLA, and Utah guaranteed tough competition at the top. Kamie Ethridge’s Washington State team won the Pac-12 tournament last year, Colorado had just reached the Sweet Sixteen, and USC was welcoming its most hyped recruit in a decade. So it was hard to anticipate the Beavers, 4-14 in conference play last year, breaking through. Pac-12 coaches ranked Oregon State 10th in the preseason poll, and media voters only slotted the Beavers one spot higher.

Still, the Beavers hosted No. 7 USC on Sunday, vibes as high as ever. After beating UCLA, they were riding a six-game win streak, the last three against ranked Pac-12 teams. Without their injured star sophomore center Raegan Beers, Oregon State lost Sunday’s game on the glass. But there was plenty to admire in the loss, especially when the Beavers trained their attention on USC freshman guard JuJu Watkins. Watkins is as pro-ready a college player as the women’s game has seen in a while. She boasts a guard’s toolkit uncommon to 6-foot-2 players; when she’s locked in, she can score at will and from all three levels.

Against Oregon State, a big team able to at least partially negate the size advantage, she put up her worst stat line of the season, shooting 6-for-32. The Beavers tend to slow games down and make good guards look bad. Just before the UCLA game, they held a Colorado team ranked fourth in the country to a season-low 59 points. Freshman Donovyn Hunter and the fourth-year guard von Oelhoffen have become increasingly bothersome on the perimeter. “This team’s rise has maybe mostly to do with Talia’s defense,” head coach Scott Rueck said after the win over UCLA.

Rueck has taken Oregon State as far as the Final Four in 2016. When the 2020 NCAA tournament was canceled, the Beavers were one of the best teams in the country, if a little overshadowed by the Ionescu-Sabally-Hebard superteam at in-state rival Oregon. But the program struggled in the years that followed, missing the tournament the last two years and losing key players to the transfer portal in 2022. Suddenly, they seem to have their swagger back. The Beavers could host the first two rounds of the NCAA tournament in Corvallis, and then play in the women’s regional in Portland. After the UCLA game, Rueck described a home atmosphere that fired him up so much he’d received a rare technical foul for protesting a call. When a reporter joked about potential fines for officiating complaints, Rueck smiled. “I don’t want to say anything. If I keep talking right now, there might be. But we don’t have a commissioner, so maybe now’s my chance.”

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