SEATTLE — For 30 years, any chatter about women’s basketball on the West Coast has usually started and ended with Stanford.
While the Cardinal are still among the elite programs in the country — as evidenced by their run this season to the NCAA Tournament’s Elite Eight — it is Oregon State and Washington that are headed to the Final Four in Indianapolis and providing validation that women’s basketball out West is more than just what is happening at Stanford.
“We’re all seeing how good the Pac-12 is. It surprises me a bit how surprised I think people are across the country,” Oregon State coach Scott Rueck said over the weekend. “You listen to just the general narrative of the Pac-12 and people are surprised, surprised Washington could beat Maryland. We’re not. We’ve played against them.”
The runs by Oregon State and Washington to the Final Four mark the latest evolution of West Coast women’s basketball.
Southern California was one of the dominant programs in the country when the women’s Final Four first started back in 1982 and, thanks to Cheryl Miller, USC won consecutive titles in 1983-84. But then no one else in what was the Pac-10 emerged as a powerhouse program other than Stanford. Nearly every program in the conference took a turn being exceptional for a year or two, but no one else could put together a team and an NCAA run good enough to reach the Final Four.
Between USC’s losing in the title game in 1986 and the Beavers and Huskies both reaching the national semifinals this year, the only other Pac-12 program to advance to the Final Four other than Stanford was California in 2013. The only other West Coast team to reach the Final Four was Long Beach State in 1987 and 1988.
“I think for a number of years people were trying to get everybody to listen that the Pac-12 was really good, but they could never really prove it because there was always one team in the Final Four and that was Stanford. … Even though people were saying it, you couldn’t really back it up,” Washington coach Mike Neighbors said Tuesday. “Now we’re saying it all year long, we’ve been saying it since Christmas and everybody is looking at us like ‘The Boy Who Cried Wolf.’ We’ve heard this before. But now you get three teams in the Elite Eight, four in the Sweet 16 and two in the Final Four. That is that validation.”
Oregon State and Washington will bring stories of redemption to Indianapolis. Rueck inherited a shattered program when he returned to his alma mater in 2010, and most of his current roster went 10-21 in the 2012-13 season. But they followed up with 24 and 27 wins the following two seasons and this year earned a share of the Pac-12 regular-season title, won the Pac-12 Tournament and upset Baylor to reach the Final Four.
Washington’s run as a No. 7 seed is among the more unlikely in tournament history and included wins on the home floors of Maryland and Kentucky just to reach the regional final against Stanford. The Huskies had not won two games against the Cardinal in the same season since 1987 before beating them in the Pac-12 Tournament and again for a Final Four berth.
For Neighbors, one of the biggest impacts he hopes the runs by Oregon State and Washington provides is proof that top high school players do not have to leave the West Coast to find success. Washington’s roster includes six in-state players, five from California, one from Arizona and one international. Oregon State is equally West-centric: 11 of its 13 players come from Oregon, Washington, California, Arizona or British Columbia.
“It validates these players staying home. These kids could have left and gone to the East Coast and Midwest and all the programs that had been going there in the past,” Neighbors said. “Them making their decision to stay on the West Coast and stay close to home I hope sends a clear message to all these players out here that you can stay close to home. You can get a great education, you can play in the same time zone and you don’t have to leave to get to this stage.”