Rueck, Beavers get set to play three who got away
Oregon State took care of Western Kentucky as expected 82-58 Friday in the first round of the NCAA Women's Basketball Tournament at Knoxville, Tennessee, setting up one of the more interesting postseason matchups in recent years.
The 13th-ranked Beavers (24-7) square off against 12th-ranked Tennessee (25-7) in a second-round game Sunday at 11 a.m. at Thompson-Boling Arena.
On the Volunteer side will be some familiar faces. Three starters hail from the state of Oregon — senior forward Jaime Nared of Westview High, senior center Mercedes Russell of Springfield High and freshman guard Evina Westbrook of South Salem High.
The 6-2 Nared and the 6-6 Russell were first-team all-Southeastern Conference selections this season. The 6-foot Westbrook was an SEC all-Freshman choice. Nared leads the Vols in scoring (16.9) and averages 7.5 rebounds. Russell is the No. 2 scorer (15.1) and leading rebounder (9.0) and shoots .586 from the field. Westbrook averages 8.5 points and 4.4 assists.
"It's interesting how it all works out," eighth-year OSU coach Scott Rueck said from his Knoxville hotel room Friday night. "Somebody said today, 'They have more Oregonians than you do.' I said, 'I guess you're right.'"
Oregon State has only two native Oregonians on its 11-player roster — junior forward Katie McWilliams from South Salem and freshman guard Aleah Goodman from LaSalle Prep.
Rueck offered scholarships to all three Oregon-bred Vols.
"They're from in-state," he said. "Of course you'd like to see if they're interested in sticking around. I can't say I ever felt we had a real shot at any of them. They were all looking further than to stay in-state.
"But I got to know them all, and they're great people. I'm proud of them for the careers."
Does Sunday's game take on added significance due to the Oregon connection and the fact the Tennessee trio spurned the Beavers?
"Not at all," Rueck said. "We play against people we've recruited all the time. It's a pretty small world we all live in. It's another game."
It's the right thing to say, of course, but Rueck can't help but have extra motivation to beat the trio of in-state players who left home to play their college ball.
Nared has played Oregon State teams twice, winning 74-63 as a freshman at Knoxville in 2014-15 and 53-50 as a sophomore at Corvallis in 2015-16. Russell was redshirting the first season but played in the game at Corvallis.
The Beavers were in top form Friday against Western Kentucky, with Marie Gulich leading the way. The 6-5 senior had a sensational game with 29 points on 11-for-15 shooting, and was 7 for 7 at the foul line. The third-team All-American and Pac-12 Defensive Player of the Year also had 15 rebounds — six off the offensive glass — in 31 minutes.
Gulich's best game of the season?
"It's up there, but she's had so many this year," Rueck said. "She impacted the game in so many ways. She had only four rebounds in our last game (against Arizona State on March 2 in the Pac-12 postseason tournament). I challenged her on that. I asked for 20, and we got 15. When she is that active on the boards, it sets the tone for the rest of her game."
Gulich was at her best in the third quarter, running the floor like a wing and scoring 17 points, several of her baskets coming off the fast-break. Gulich got help from several teammates, notably sophomore wing Kat Tudor, who scored 19 points with five 3-pointers, and sophomore point guard Mikayla Pivec, who had 15 points and eight assists with no turnovers in 31 minutes.
Oregon State, the national leader in 3-point percentage, was 10 for 23 from beyond the arc and 20 for 24 from the charity stripe. The Beavers, fifth nationally in opponents' field-goal percentage, held the Lady Toppers to .323 shooting.
"I was really proud of the way we competed," Rueck said. "We were prepared. There is a bit of anxiety going into a game when you haven't played for two weeks. You hope you come out firing on all cylinders. We did. We based everything off our defense and rebounding, which we knew was going to be a big factor. And I liked the tempo we played with offensively."
Tennessee is 14-2 on its home court, not including a 100-60 annihilation of Liberty in its first-round game on Friday. If the Beavers win Sunday, they will end the college careers of Nared and Russell.
"Somebody's season is going to end, but that's just reality," Rueck said. "(The Volunteers) are a really good team on their home floor. It's going to be a great challenge. and we're excited for it."