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Beavers' dream comes true: Final Four

Gabriella Hanson hits a baseline jumper for the go-ahead points with 3:28 to play

TRIBUNE PHOTO: JIM COWSERT - Oregon State players and coach Scott Rueck (right) celebrate with the regional trophy at Dallas on Monday night, after downing Baylor 60-57.DALLAS — King Kong went down Monday night at the American Airlines Center. Godzilla comes next.

Oregon State’s incredible journey continues on to Indianapolis and the Final Four on Sunday, where the most iconic program in women’s basketball awaits.

Yes, Beaver Nation. Connecticut — the three-time defending NCAA champion and winner of 73 straight games, coaching by the legendary Geno Auriemma — stands between your team and a spot in next Tuesday’s national championship game.

That’s Oregon State’s reward for knocking off No. 1 seed Baylor 60-57 Monday to claim the Dallas Regional.

The 36-0 Huskies, who have won a record 22 straight in the postseason, “are really good,” said OSU coach Scott Rueck. “What they’re doing is historic. It’s exciting. Who wouldn’t want to prepare for and get ready to take on the best? We get the opportunity to do that. I relish the opportunity.”

Dreams do come true, and the Beavers’ rise from the pits of the Pac-12 to the national semifinals is truly “pinch-me stuff,” as Rueck said.

Rueck arrived on the scene in Corvallis in 2010 after a successful 14-year run at George Fox to take over a program that was demoralized and downtrodden in the wake of Rueck’s predecessor, LaVonda Wagner. He inherited four scholarship players and had open tryouts during his first preseason just to fill out the roster.

“When I accepted the job, I had friends tell me they were scared for me,” Rueck said Monday night. They called it “the worst job in America — at the time, anyway.”

Six years later, Rueck’s wife, Kerry, watched as her husband snip the final strand of the net at American Airlines Center, to the cheers of his assistant coaches and players and a couple of hundred Beaver fans who had stayed to look on after the win over Baylor.

“Scott was told when he took the job it would be 10 years before he would get the program to where he would want it,” Rueck’s wife said. “He was sort of OK with that. That didn’t seem so bad. So to be playing UConn in the Final Four? To beat Baylor in Texas? I mean … ”

Baylor, from 85 miles down the road in Waco, arrived with a 36-1 record and with thousands of fans turning it into a home game for the Bears.

With Jamie Weisner — voted the most outstanding player of the regional — and backcourt mate Sydney Wiese leading the way, Oregon State knocked down 7 of 13 3-point attempts to take a 34-25 lead into intermission.

It was a grind from there. The Beavers were 0 for 5 from beyond the arc after the break and scored only 26 second-half points. Baylor pounded the ball inside and, with OSU bigs Ruth Hamblin and Deven Hunter on the bench in foul trouble, gradually cut away at the difference and took their first lead since the opening minutes at 51-50 with 6:30 to play.

The Beavers held the Bears to six points the rest of the way and got only one basket — a jumper by Gabby Hanson — themselves. But OSU hit 8 of 10 free throws down the stretch, including 3 of 4 by all-tournament selection Wiese in the final 33 seconds.

The last of the gift shots gave Oregon State a 60-57 lead with seven seconds left. Out of timeouts, the Bears pushed it up, and Niya Johnson got a decent 3-point look that bounced off just before the final buzzer, to the delight of all those wearing orange.

The Beavers won with their trademark defense, holding Baylor to .385 shooting and only 1 for 5 from beyond the arc. The Bears’ star forward, Nina Davis, managed 11 points on 5-for-11 shooting after scoring 30 points in each of her previous two games.

“Every time I got the ball, they were sending one of the guards to double me,” Davis said.

Baylor made six more baskets (25-19) than Oregon State and forced 19 turnovers while committing only eight. But the Beavers outscored the Bears 21-3 at the 3-point line, built a nine-point advantage from the foul line (15 for 18), won the rebound battle 39-33 and allowed the free-wheeling Bears only two fast-break points.

Weisner scored 16 points with eight rebounds Monday night. Wiese led the way with 18 points and eight assists. Hamblin contributed 10 points, 12 boards and four blocked shots, and Hanson chipped in 10 points on 4-for-10 shooting.

It was a sweet moment for everyone in the OSU program, but particularly for seniors Weisner, Hamblin, Hunter and Samantha Siegner, who struggled through a 10-21 freshman season in 2012-13.

“It still feels surreal that we won and we’re in the Final Four,” Hunter said 45 minutes after the final whistle. “We came in and set this as our goal for our senior year. We definitely imagined it. It might have been a crazy goal, but we’ve reached it.”

For Rueck, an Oregon State alum who was in school during the Gary Payton years, said those warnings from his friends about taking the job “were fuel to me.”

“I believe in the university, in the people and the community,” he told the media. “I’d experienced Oregon State as a winner, at least in the men’s program, so I had a vision when I took the job over.

“You don’t win without great players, and I don’t believe you win without great people. I think we have a great basketball team, but (the players) are better people.”

Weisner, Wiese and Hamblin joined their coach at the podium to meet with the media postgame. The three players were asked about the challenge of facing Connecticut. Hamblin and Wiese had their say. Then it was Weisner’s turn.

“It’s fun to have UConn,” the Pac-12 player of the year said. “That’s always been my dream. To be the best, you have to beat the best, and that’s what’s next for us.”

Wiese and Hamblin nodded in unison to Weisner’s words.

For Rueck, it will be a reunion with Husky stars Breanna Stewart — the two-time national player of the year — and Moriah Jefferson. Rueck was an assistant coach and Stewart and Jefferson members of the U.S. team that won the Pan-American Games in Toronto last summer.

“I got to to hang out with and help coach them for three weeks,” Rueck said. “The fact we get to meet up again is pretty special.”

Oregon State is in it first Women’s Final Four. UConn is participating in its ninth straight.

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