Pac-12 Feature: From ground floor to Final Four

OSU Athletics / Washington Athletics

When Scott Rueck arrived as his alma mater to take over the Oregon State women’s basketball program, he looked at his roster and saw two names. Two.

He needed bodies and to get them he opened the gym doors and invited in one and all. Six years removed from open tryouts, the Beavers have opened the possibilities by earning their first-ever NCAA Women’s Final Four berth in Indianapolis.

“When I accepted this job, I had friends tell me they were scared for me. The worst job in America at the time anyway,” Rueck said. “Those things are fuel for me, someone who went to Oregon State, believes in the University and believes in the people and the community.”

For all his belief, Rueck said he couldn’t really imagine that he would be in this place, six years later, preparing his team for a Final Four matchup against Connecticut.

“No way. No way. I did not have enough knowledge at the time to even predict this was possible,” Rueck said. “I didn’t know if we could get to the top half of the conference in that time, to be honest.”

Rueck’s renovation included the recruitment of players such as Ruth Hamblin and Jamie Weisner, who have become mainstays as the Beavers built toward consecutive Pac-12 championships and this unprecedented run to the NCAA semifinals.

Rueck got Hamblin and Weisner to commit to his program at a time when wins were sparse and the future wasn’t entirely clear. The Beavers won just 10 games in their first season in the program.

“Obviously it feels better to be in this position than four years ago,” Weisner said.

Hamblin said the struggles the Beavers experienced feel “like a lifetime ago.”

“It's been an incredible journey,” Hamblin said. “When you think of our freshman year you come in and win 10 games there wasn't a lot of hope in the room. We knew what we were capable of and I think our work ethic has just paid off, and all the hard lessons we learned, especially the losses down the stretch, we learned from those and we built from there and we never let our hope die.”

The Beavers need only to look across the bracket to see another Pac-12 team that has done its own extensive renovation and found a new level for their program.

The Washington Huskies are also making their first Final Four appearance, the culmination of a multi-year rebuild by head coach Mike Neighbors.

Like Rueck, Neighbors understands the process of starting from scratch. He arrived five years ago with Kevin McGuff after their successful run together at Xavier. Two years later, McGuff left Seattle to return to Ohio State for an opportunity to coach his alma mater, leaving behind Neighbors, the Arkansas native who had never been a head coach before.

Neighbors first task was to convince the program’s top incoming recruit, Southern California star Kelsey Plum. Next up was convincing Chantel Osahor to come to Seattle. Both had their letters-of-intent returned by the university after the coaching change.

“Kelsey’s was pretty cut and dried,” Neighbors said.

Osahor was a bit of a different story.

“I actually went to see Chantel and make sure that she understood that our plan was the same,” Neighbors said. “That there was going to be no change in what we had seen in her future.”

Osahor said she knew Neighbors would “have my back on the court and off.”

“And I knew everything else would take care of itself,” Osahor said.

When they both said yes – and now-senior forward Talia Walton decided to stay - Neighbors felt like he was on the right track.

“It gave me confidence that we were headed in the right direction,” Neighbors said. “Then for them to stick through the mistakes I made as a first-year head coach, a lot of kids will transfer in this climate these days, and they just stuck around and stuck around, just kept digging in, battling, and getting to know each other better.”

While Rueck has been steadily building the Beavers into a national power, Neighbors’ Huskies’ team looks from the outside like more of an overnight sensation, with their surprising run through the NCAA bracket – a run that included a win over second-seeded Maryland in College Park and a regional semifinal win over Kentucky in Lexington last weekend.

“I think we fly under the radar out west,” Neighbors said. “We’ve talked a lot about it at the beginning of the year that we’ve had the right pieces. But sometimes the right pieces don’t end up making a puzzle. I think this group really fits together and forms a good puzzle.”

Michelle Smith is a contributing writer for pac-12.com. She has covered pro and college sports for espnW, the San Francisco Chronicle and AOL Fanhouse.  

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