By Jesse Sowa

Corvallis Gazette-Times

Next up

Stanford at Oregon St.

When: 7 p.m. Thursday

TV: Pac-12 (Ore) Radio: KICE 94.9-FM

CORVALLIS — A season ago, at the midway point of Pac-12 play as Oregon State men’s basketball is this week, the Beavers were 11-10 overall and 3-6 in the conference.

All 10 losses had been by single digits, and OSU was headed for another one at California, which went on to finish last in the Pac-12. Oregon State was 8-13 in single-digit games for the season.

This year is different, and significantly so, for the Beavers.

Oregon State (14-7, 6-3) enters Thursday night’s home game against Stanford (11-10, 4-5) having won six of 11 games decided by nine or fewer points, including four of five in conference play.

That improvement has the Beavers contending for a top-half finish in the conference standings and the program’s first winning conference record since Gary Payton’s senior season in 1989-90.

“When there’s under eight minutes to go and games are tight, just finding a way to either maintain the lead or get the lead and keep the lead down the stretch,” senior guard Stevie Thompson said, explaining the difference between last season and this for the Beavers.

Is that the result of another year of experience or gaining confidence with success?

“I think it’s a little bit of both,” Thompson said. “Everybody wants to be able to step up and make a play down the stretch, so it’s making the right plays and right decisions in those moments.”

After dropping four nonconference games by single digits, Oregon State turned the tide by winning its first two Pac-12 games, which both went down to the wire.

The Beavers won at Oregon, 77-72, outscoring the Ducks 10-4 in the final 3:06 after seeing a 15-point lead with 10 minutes left disappear. Then, at home against USC, OSU overcame a slow start, including an 11-point first-half deficit, to get past the Trojans in overtime, 79-74.

OSU lost 70-67 at Arizona State, but the Beavers showed their ability to finish in hostile environments last weekend with wins at Colorado (76-74) and at Utah (81-72) for the program’s first conference road sweep in 10 years.

Winning the close ones has been a result of other contributing factors.

“I feel like our chemistry is better, and then we are learning how to play better with each other. That helps us a lot,” senior center Gligorije Rakocevic said.

Coach Wayne Tinkle agreed, quoting Stew Morrill, Tinkle’s coach during his playing days at Montana.

“Very cohesive unit, guys really get along well. You can see it during training table and when we’re on the road. It’s not just the usual cliques of two or three guys. They’re intermingling,” Tinkle said. “Really have a good, as coach Morrell used to call it, esprit de corps. Great chemistry.”

Esprit de corps is described by Merriam-Webster as “the common spirit existing in the members of a group and inspiring enthusiasm, devotion and strong regard for the honor of the group.”

Junior forward Tres Tinkle says his team is a close one with good chemistry.

He said it is more maturity and a demonstrated ability to bounce back that have helped Oregon State take a step or two forward from last year’s 16-16 squad.

“We’ve gone through a lot of adversity, on the court, off the court. We stay together,” he said. “If things aren’t going great, people don’t give in and keep battling.”

He added that players are not “afraid to get after each other now, because we know it’s what’s best for the team.”

Oregon State has answered any questions about its ability to win on the road.

The Beavers have won four true road games, three in conference, after winning four Pac-12 road contests in the previous four seasons combined.

The program last won three conference road games in 2010 in coach Craig Robinson’s second season.

OSU has four road games left in the regular season: at UCLA, USC, Washington and Washington State. The program last won four conference road games in 1992-93 under Jimmy Anderson.

Last week’s accomplishments have instilled a confidence the players and coaches alike hope they can carry forward.

Coach Tinkle said the win at Colorado was big because the team did not believe it “played particularly well” but still rallied from nine points down to get the victory.

Discussions en route to Salt Lake City centered around not being satisfied with one win and validating it with another.

The Beavers started fast against the Utes and led by 15 points early in the second half.

Utah made a second-half run, which Oregon State knew was eventually coming. The Utes got as close as four points in the closing minutes before Tres Tinkle’s big 3-pointer put the Beavers back in control.

“But the fact that we answered it and shut the door and found a way to win that one,” Tinkle said, “when we could have been, maybe in years past, content with the split, I think shows great growth and maturity from this team.”