KERRY EGGERS ON SPORTS/'It will always have a special place in our hearts. It will always be home'

TRIBUNE PHOTO: JAIME VALDEZ - Oregon State players (from left) Kelbie Orum, Sydney Wiese and Breanna Brown acknowledge the crowd after Sunday's victory against Creighton.CORVALLIS — After the final horn had sounded, after Oregon State's players had huddled at center court at Gill Coliseum one last time, after Beaver Nation had saluted them with a final rousing standing ovation, Sydney Wiese bent down and kissed the floor.

For four years, Ralph Miller Court had been good to her. And Lord knows, she'd been good to it, too.

Sunday was the end of an era, "a flat-out celebration," coach Scott Rueck observed afterward.

The No. 2 seeded-Beavers (31-4) disposed of Creighton 64-52 to write their ticket to the Sweet Sixteen for the second straight season, with Wiese and Gabby Hanson leading the way.

It was the final home game for seniors Wiese, Hanson and Kolbie Orum, and possibly redshirt junior Breanna Brown, who may not return for her senior season. In four years, those players amassed a record of 61-6 at Gill, a mark that may never be equaled.

The seniors went out in style Sunday.

"A storybook ending," said Wiese, who had 13 points, seven rebounds, four assists and no turnovers in a sparkling 39-minute performance. "I'm thankful we have some more basketball to play, but to close this chapter like that, it's incredible."

Sunday's attendance was announced at 5,660, but it looked like and sounded liked a couple thousand more. When it was over, almost nobody had left the building. They stayed to stand and cheer and salute a group of seniors who helped put Oregon State women's basketball on the national map.

"That ovation at the end, it gives me chills right now, thinking about it," said Rueck, in his seventh year at the OSU helm. "That's all a coach can hope for from these players — giving so much, but also getting so much.

"They did everything right for four years. They earned what they got. Well done. I'm so proud of them. They created a legacy that will live on forever in this program."

When the current Beaver seniors arrived four years ago, Rueck was in the early stages of building a program. Four years later, they're working on a string of three straight Pac-12 regular-season championships, with a chance to get to the Final Four for a second year in a row.

Oregon State's women had never before won a conference title. Now, a Beaver women's game at Gill is a happening.

"What Scott and his staff have built here is pretty neat," Creighton coach Jim Flanery observed. "I have a lot or respect for it. It's impressive.

"Tonight was a great experience for our players to get to play (the Beavers). We don't get to do that enough in women's basketball. One of the things that impresses me is how some programs can get to the point where they can get 6,000 or more for a women's basketball game. That's great. It starts with getting the players."

Such as Wiese, whose No. 24 jersey may one day hang in the rafters at Gill. The poised 6-foot southpaw was hounded all night by Creighton defenders and got off only nine shots. But she directed the OSU attack as always, and got more help at the offensive end than she did in Friday's first-round 56-55 win over Long Beach State.

There was Hanson, the Pac-12 Defensive Player of the Year who has struggled with her offensive game all season. She came out smoking, scoring 11 of her 13 points in the first half.

"This is the thing with Gabby," Rueck said. "People say, 'Why does she struggle making layups? She's shooting (a low) percentage.' Those people who aren't with her every day, all I have to say (to them) is, Gabby wins games, period.

"Tonight, she knew this team needed a spark. She came out and played the offense she is capable of playing. She's a very capable scorer. She doesn't identify that way, unless her team needs it. She was the one, other than (Mikayla Pivec), who was able to get to the rim and create offense for us early."

Pivec, Oregon State's prize 6-foot freshman, contributed nine points on 4-for-6 shooting to go with seven rebounds. Rueck had a talk with her before Sunday's game, as he has done at times this season.

"I have to remind her to be aggressive, to give her the green light to be aggressive," he said. "We need her to make plays for us. She impacts the game in so many ways."

As usual, Oregon State put the clamps down defensively on the opponent. Two days earlier, Long Beach State had bombed in 10 of 18 3-point attempts. On Sunday, the Beavers held the Blue Jays to two 3-pointers on 10 tries. The Beavers also dominated the boards 45-32, including 15-6 in the first quarter, and led from start to finish.

"They did a great job taking away the 3-point line," Flanery said, "and they beat us up on the glass."

Denying the 3-point shot "was the game plan," Rueck said. "We executed it to a 'T'."

Friday's near-loss to Long Beach State "was like a wakeup call," Hanson said. "We were super focused for this one. We expected more from ourselves, and more from Creighton."

The next hurdle in the Beavers' bid for another Final Four appearance is a Saturday date with No. 3 seed Florida State (27-6) at the Stockton (California) regional. The Seminoles routed Missouri 77-55 Sunday to get to the Sweet Sixteen for the third straight year, with coach Sue Semrau notching her 400th victory at FSU, including five straight 20-win seasons.

The Seminoles are a veteran club, with three seniors and two juniors in the starting five, along with top reserve Chatrice White, a 6-3 junior center. Shakayla Thomas, the Atlantic Coast Conference Player of the Year, had 20 points and 11 rebounds against Missouri. She averages 15.2 points and 5.8 rebounds and shoots .505 from the field.

But Rueck may have even greater respect for 5-8 senior point guard Leticia Romero, who averages 12.3 points, 3.9 rebounds and 3.7 assists and shoots .498 from the field, .519 from 3-point range and .893 from the line.

"She is a phenomenal floor leader, a great shooter — very similar to Syd," Rueck said. "She runs the show at an extremely high level."

Last season, Florida State and Oregon State were both at the Dallas regional. Baylor beat the Seminoles in the Sweet Sixteen before the Beavers knocked off the Bears to make the Final Four.

"And here we are again, at a regional together," Rueck said.

Oregon State will defend the heck out of the Seminoles, and will probably use a size advantage to win the board battle. What the Beavers need is offense from players such as Hanson, Pivec and 6-5 center Marie Gulich, a first-team all-Pac-12 selection who had 12 points and 12 rebounds Sunday but was only 6 for 17 from the field and grew reluctant to shoot in the second half.

Gulich has been an effective short-range jump shooter most of the season. She needs to have faith in herself to continue to fire away if she misses a few shots early, as she did against the Blue Jays.

Same with Katie McWilliams, the 6-2 sophomore who went scoreless Sunday, missing a pair of corner 3's in a nine-minute stint. The Beavers need production from her at the offensive end to move on in the tournament.

Even with not all of the cylinders firing, Oregon State got it done against Creighton.

"We haven't had anything easy all year," Rueck said. "If we hit 3 straight wide-open corner 3's tonight, we blow this thing wide open.

"But this team's M.O. is to not do anything easy, but to win. There's something special about that."

Sunday was special — a swan song for the seniors.

"It hasn't hit me yet," Hanson said. "I'm not letting it hit. If I do, it's going to be too much. I'll be overcome with emotion.

"There was a moment walking in for warmups when it crept in a little bit. Last game. Amazing turnout. It was hot in there."

Beaver Nation turned out to watch the team one more time, and to say goodbye.

"I credit our success to our fans," Wiese said. "They made it so much fun. When the days are hard, that's our motivation. It's a grind out there, especially in conference play.

"In postseason, you have that bigger dream to inspire and work hard for the people who have our backs. There are a lot of emotions. We have poured them into this place. It will always have a special place in our hearts. It will always be home."

Rueck was asked if he had thought how his team will do next season without the seniors.

"Twenty-one years (including 14 years at George Fox) has taught me to deal with this better than I probably should," he said. "Somehow people are led to this program, and you go on. But you never replace these people. There's no way."

The feeling is mutual with the seniors. That's why Wiese paused for a final kiss. It was a shot she didn't want to miss.

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