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Dramatic turnaround puts OSU women on tourney path

Coach Scott Rueck rebuilds team; center Ruth Hamblin is key


by: COURTESY OF DAVE NISHITANI - Ruth Hamblin, Oregon States 6-6 center, brought her defensive presence to the Beavers and now is emerging as a threat in other ways for a team that tied for second in the Pac-12 regular season. CORVALLIS — The Oregon State women’s basketball team is tournament-bound.

As in Pac-12 tournament, as the No. 3 seed in Seattle this weekend.

And then the NCAA Tournament, in which the Beavers are a shoo-in to be among the field of 64.

It’s a mind-blowing development if you flash back to 2010, when Scott Rueck was hired to pick up the pieces from the toxic waste dump left for him by his predecessor, LaVonda Wagner.

The 2009-10 Beavers finished 11-20 overall after starting the season 9-2, going 2-16 in Pac-10 games. Rueck inherited five scholarship players after the volatile Wagner was fired in June following a mass exodus of players from the program.

That left Rueck — who had coached a George Fox team with 10 freshmen and no returning starters to a 32-0 record and a national Division III championship in 2008-09 — no time to recruit and with a roster ill-equipped to compete in the

Pac-10.

Rueck’s makeshift crew competed, though, going 9-21 and 2-16 his first season but suffering 10 of the conference losses by single digits.

Three years later, Rueck’s fourth OSU team has finished the regular season 21-9 overall — most wins in the program since 1994-95 — and a program-best 13-5 in Pac-12 action, tying for second in the conference with California.

“It makes me smile,” says Rueck, 43, a 1991 Oregon State graduate whose goal was to one day coach at his alma mater. “I don’t think many people realize exactly what this has taken.

“I’ve been so proud of our coaching staff. We recruited for a program that initially was below zero. I don’t think anybody quite understands what a grind it has been to get the right people on board, which we have now.

“Seeing it come to fruition ... you never know if it will happen. You just hope it does. It’s as exciting as it gets for a coach. I have a great sense of pride for all the young women in our program.”

The players have the same sense of pride in their coach.

“He’s done such a great job,” says 6-6 center Ruth Hamblin, who has emerged as one of the nation’s top post players in her sophomore season. “He had to fight through the early years to develop the culture he intended. To have things blossom with this team has been really cool.”

The Beavers are 14-1 at home including 9-0 in conference, losing only to second-ranked Notre Dame (29-0) 70-58 at Corvallis on Dec. 29.

The OSU players “handled adversity early and never got discouraged losing tough games to Notre Dame, Penn State (currently ranked No. 11) and Florida,” Rueck says. “They felt we could have beaten those teams. They continued to progress with that confidence, and down the stretch of the season, the switch was flipped. They knew they could win and closed teams out.”

Oregon State has done it with nine freshmen and sophomores on an 11-player roster. Junior guard Ali Gibson is a starter and senior guard Alyssa Martin — daughter of former OSU player Earl Martin — has been pressed into duty as a starter in place of leading scorer Jamie Weisner, who has missed the last nine games with a broken hand.

In Weisner’s absence, the Beavers have gone 9-0.

“All we had to do was get rid of Jamie,” Rueck jokes, adding: “Nobody would have predicted that. We wouldn’t have predicted that. But once the players realized they have something pretty special, they’ve run with it.”

The Beavers win games at the 3-point line on both ends. They rank first in the Pac-12 in 3-point percentage (.377) and opponents’ 3-point percentage (.280). Freshman Sydney Wiese has led the way offensively, ranking second in 3-point accuracy (.441) and first in makes by a mile with a school-record 94.

Oregon State is first, too, in blocked shots, thanks to Hamblin, who swats 3.83 per game — more than twice that of league runner-up Chiney Ogwumike of Stanford at 1.80.

OSU holds opponents to a .354 field-goal percentage and owns a rebounding margin of plus-7.4, having not been outrebounded for 16 straight games.

“Last year, the top four teams in our conference were the top four rebounding teams,” Rueck says. “We weren’t one of the most physical teams, especially early in the season. I challenged the (players) with that, and they took it to heart. It has changed our character. Of course, when you have Ruth rebounding the ball, it makes it easier.”

Hamblin has been a cornerstone to Oregon State’s success despite arriving as an under-the-radar player from rural Houston, British Columbia, a logging/mining/industrial town of fewer than 3,000. Houston is 13 hours northeast of Vancouver in the center of the province.

Hamblin’s parents — 6-1 Lance and 6-2 Shirley — owned a black angus cattle ranch. “I’ve been riding horses since Day One,” Hamblin says.

Not so with basketball, which she started in ninth grade when her biology teacher at Houston Christian School — who had taken over the girls basketball program — convinced her to join the team. With Hamblin leading the way, Houston Christian went 61-2 and won back-to-back Class A province championships her final two years. She was the province’s most valuable player as a senior, averaging 27 points, 13 rebounds and 11 blocked shots.

Even so, Hamblin — valedictorian of her senior class — wasn’t heavily recruited, fielding offers from a half-dozen U.S. programs as well as several in western Canada. She chose Oregon State because of the coaching staff, she says.

“I liked the family environment and what they were building here,” she says.

Hamblin — dubbed “the Canadian Hammer” by ex-OSU player Joe Burton — wasn’t an immediate success. She struggled with the transition as a freshman, averaging 4.4 points, 2.9 rebounds and 1.1 blocks in 13 minutes a game.

A stint with the Canadian national team last summer helped, even though Hamlin didn’t play much.

“To be able to get on the floor and play against some of the best in the world was huge for me,” she says. “They’re all so strong and fast at that level. It was a great experience.”

Hamblin started slowly this season, too, scoring in double figures in only one of the first 11 games.

“There was a lot of self-doubt,” Rueck says. “She wondered if she belonged. She was in reactionary mode instead of dictating what was going on around her.”

Hamblin’s breakthrough game came against Notre Dame, when she contributed 12 points, 8 rebounds and 9 blocks.

“A light went on for her,” Rueck says. “Since then, she has played at a completely different level.”

‘That was the turning point,” Hamblin agrees. “I saw what I was capable of doing at the highest level of the NCAA. It was eye-opening and inspiring.”

In an 84-70 romp past Oregon on Jan. 13, Hamblin posted Oregon State’s first triple-double in 30 years with 23 points, 12 rebounds and school-record 10 blocked shots. She finished the regular season with a school-record 115 blocked shots, four short of the Pac-12 single-season standard.

Hamblin shot a school-record .678 from the field in league games. Overall, she has averaged 10.1 points while shooting .599 from the field to go with 8.6 rebounds and 3.8 blocks, ranking fifth nationally in the latter category despite playing only 26 minutes a game. She has averaged 12.7 points, 9.4 rebounds and 4.2 blocks against Pac-12 foes and has had eight double-doubles.

The left-handed Hamblin possesses a deft touch with both hands from short range, using a hook from either side.

“It’s been steady progress the second half of the season,” Rueck says. “She hasn’t taken a bad shot in Pac-12 play, and she has emerged as a passer. Against Washington, she threw a backdoor bounce pass to Ali for a layup that reminded me of (Arvydas) Sabonis. It was like, what am I freaking watching?

“We’re playing through Ruth now. She has become a dynamic center. She has all the tools. Ruth is 6-6 and a gifted athlete. She has become an imposing presence at both ends. I don’t know how many players in the country have the kind of impact on the game she does. She has changed the game for the rest of our team. If she’s not in the elite category now, she’s going to be soon. Her growth has been something you rarely see in sports.”

Rueck likes what he sees off the court from Hamblin, too, a 3.98 student in pre-engineering.

“This kid is brilliant,” the OSU coach says. “She is a superstar in every sense of the word. She can do it all. Her passion is horses. She is an amazing cook. She’s a phenomenal person, as efficient a human being as I’ve ever met.”

Hamblin is part of the reason why women’s basketball has become as good or better a draw than the men’s team. For the last two home games against Washington State and Washington, Oregon State’s men had announced crowds of 3,618 and 5,280. For the last two home games against Arizona and Arizona State, the OSU women drew 4,631 and 5,208 — the latter the seventh-largest in school history and the biggest since 2000.

“That’s why I came here,” Rueck says. “The excitement around our program, on campus and in the community, is extremely rewarding.”

It’s almost a certainty this will be the first OSU women’s team to make the NCAA Tournament since 1995-96, Judy Spoelstra’s first season as coach. The Beavers’ RPI rating is No. 34. ESPN projects them as a No. 10 seed.

Oregon State gets a first-round bye in the Pac-12 tournament. The Beavers open at 8:30 p.m. Saturday against the Washington-Utah winner. They have beaten the Huskies twice and the Utes in their only meeting this season.

The Beavers hope to regain the services of Weisner, an outstanding scorer who would only bolster their chances to get to a Pac-12 title game against fourth-ranked Stanford.

Then it will be on to the NCAA Tournament.

“Hopefully, we’ll continue to do what we’ve been doing,” Rueck says. “If we just continue to progress the way we are, I don’t see that changing. We’re a tough out for anyone.”

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