By Steve Gress

Corvallis Gazette-Times

NCAA Tournament

No. 6 Oregon St. at No. 2 Baylor

When: 4 p.m. Friday

TV: ESPN2

For years, Tennessee was the mecca of college women’s basketball.

Under late coach Pat Summitt, the Lady Vols were one of the programs that set the standard for the sport.

So when Oregon State handed Tennessee its first home NCAA Tournament loss ever on Sunday — 66-59 — to reach the Sweet 16 for the third straight season, it was quite an accomplishment.

The sixth-seeded Beavers overcame a 10-point deficit after one quarter to continue their season while sending the Lady Vols home in the second round for the second straight season.

Oregon State will face No. 2 seed Baylor at 4 p.m. PDT on Friday in Lexington, Kentucky. No. 1 seed Louisville and No. 4 seed and Pac-12 rival Stanford face off in the other regional semifinal immediately following.

The Lexington Region is the only one in which all four remaining teams have played in a Final Four.

The Beavers are playing their best basketball after dispatching No. 11 seed Western Kentucky 82-58 in the first round and then Tennessee.

“I think we played amazing this weekend,” Oregon State senior Marie Gulich said Sunday afternoon. “Friday was so much fun the way we just moved the ball.”

She added: “Overall I would say those are probably our two best games of the year.”

That after the Beavers let one slip away in a loss to Arizona State in the quarterfinals of the Pac-12 Tournament, a setback that likely cost OSU the possibility of a top-four seed and the opportunity to host the first and second rounds.

It turned out to be somewhat of a blessing in disguise.

“After the Pac-12 Tournament we just elevated our game,” Gulich said. “I think our mindset shifted a little bit and we are more aggressive and we are attacking a little bit more now.”

Each year’s journey has been different for the Beavers, who are 1-1 in the Sweet 16 under eighth-year coach Scott Rueck.

With so much roster turnover the past couple of seasons, and with Gulich the only senior, this year’s team found the path to be a bit more difficult than the past two.

Still, while the Beavers did not win or share the Pac-12 regular-season title for a fourth straight season, they went 14-4 and tied for third place with UCLA.

“I feel like we had so much adversity and we’ve had so many ups and downs, we were fighting so hard and there were so many tears and so many doubts,” Gulich, a 6-foot-5 center, said of the path the Beavers took this season to play the second week of the tournament.

“Then people came back and fought. That’s why it makes me even happier that we reached this point and that we overcame this all together as a team and that we stick together as a team and that we believe and work hard.”

All season, Rueck has praised Gulich’s leadership and play as being big reasons for the success.

He has also noted that this team has had to learn so many lessons to get to this stage.

Oregon State has started a senior, a junior, two sophomores and one freshman most of the season.

“It’s really fun to see how everyone starts to understand what their role is and starts to understand what it takes,” Gulich said. “It’s just great to see how people just elevate their game and people take it on. They accept the challenge and work hard. I couldn’t be more proud of everyone. They’re young and they work so hard.”

There were plenty of potholes along the way, but those rough patches have helped the Beavers become mentally stronger during the course of the season.

“Last year our team kind of had more smooth sailing,” said sophomore Mikayla Pivec, the other returning starter from last season. “… This year we’ve had a lot more adversity. We got blown out at UCLA, we lost a tough one to Duke, we lost a tough one to Notre Dame.

“So to see how much fight this team has and how we’re not going to give up, no matter how tough the going gets, kind of showed itself with us getting down 10 (points) early against Tennessee and how we were able to battle back. We just kept fighting.”

Reaching the Sweet 16 might come as a surprise to some outside the program. For the Oregon State players, it is just continuing to build on recent success.

“The players before us have built this legacy and we’re just trying to continue and build upon that and do what we can to help Oregon State remain a powerhouse as long as possible in women’s basketball,” Pivec said. “I’m super proud of this group. I love playing with them and hopefully we can last as long as possible.”

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