Mulkey, Bears meet the Beavers again
From the frying pan into the fire they go, Scott Rueck and his Oregon State women's basketball team.
After a monumental 66-59 win over Tennessee at Knoxville last Sunday, the 13th-ranked Beavers (25-7) get another chance for an upset special Friday at Lexington, Kentucky in a Sweet 16 matchup with second-ranked Baylor (33-1). That game can be heard on KEX (AM 1190) at 3:30 p.m., with Ron Callan on the call.
The win over the 12th-ranked and No. 3-seeded Volunteers thrust the No. 6 seed Beavers into the Sweet 16 for the third straight season, but there was more. In 57 NCAA Tournament games at Knoxville in school history, the Vols had never lost.
So where does the win rank among the best in Rueck's eight-year run at the OSU helm?
"It's way up there, no question," Rueck says. "For all that it meant, and it being the first time Tennessee has lost. ... For this team to accomplish a feat like that with our relative postseason inexperience is remarkable."
It sets up an intriguing rematch with Baylor, the team Oregon State vanquished 60-57 in a regional final at Dallas to reach the 2016 Final Four in what was basically a home game for the Bears. That one, says Rueck, "was the most special day in our program's history, a culmination of so much experience and hitting everything right at the right moment."
"It was similar to the Tennessee game last weekend," says Rueck of the 2016 win over a Baylor team that entered the game 36-1 and ranked No. 2 in the country. "It was a game that took awhile to get comfortable. We got off to a slow start before we settled in.
"And then that belief crept in that, 'OK, we can play with this team.' Then there was an overwhelming confidence that came out of our group that we can do this — the collective fight you need to compete against a team that talented."
Baylor coach Kim Mulkey recalls the tense competitiveness of the Oregon State game of two years ago.
"Other than we lost and how heartbreaking it was, I remember that it was a hard-fought game and that it could have gone either way," Mulkey says. "Both teams left it all on the floor."
Oregon State fans remember Mulkey, unhappy with the referees and the way her team was playing in the first half, flinging her coat into the stands and drawing a technical foul.
"I didn't actually throw it in the stands," she says with a chuckle. "I threw it behind the bench, and my daughter, who was on the bench, retrieved it and put it on the back of the chair. It's all just part of coaching."
Mulkey has a doctorate in that, with a 542-97 record during her 18 years at Baylor, with two NCAA titles (2005 and '12) and 10 straight Sweet 16 appearances. The Bears have had seven straight 30-win seasons.
"She's a great coach," Rueck says. "She brings a passion to the game that is so rare. It's endearing, because of the way she competes.
"(In 2016) she was classy to me before and after our game. I appreciated that, because we didn't know each other. You can't do anything but respect what she has put together at Baylor and what they are, year in and and year out."
Mulkey has a similar respect for Rueck and the Beavers.
"I feel the same about them that I did last year, and the year before that," she says. "They are a program that has come up on the elite level scene, and they're very well-coached. They're very good — a program to be reckoned with now. Scott is a very good coach. I don't know him personally, but he seems like a humble, family man."
At the 2016 pregame press conference, Mulkey noticed Rueck's three young children tagging along with him. Afterward, she pulled him aside.
"I told him to make sure to always have his children around him because, at the end of the day, that's what life is all about," Mulkey says.
It's been a difficult season on a family note for Mulkey, whose only daughter, Makenzie, gave birth to a stillborn baby in November. At about the same time, sophomore forward Lauren Cox, a Type 1 diabetic, was in the hospital under doctor's care. Neither Mulkey nor Cox made the trip to Los Angeles that week to play UCLA. The Bruins won 82-68, handing the Bears their only loss of the season.
Mulkey and her team have regrouped to win 28 straight games, bombing Grambling State 96-46 and then Michigan 80-58 at Waco in the first two NCAA Tournament games.
Baylor ranks second in the nation with an 86.7-point scoring average. Opponents shoot .321 from the field — the Bears lead the nation in that category — and .285 from 3-point range. Baylor outrebounds foes by a nation's-best average of 19.1 a game. Next is Saint Mary's at 11.3. The Bears are also fourth nationally (6.7) in blocks per game.
"If you look at every statistic, they're the second-best team next to UConn," Rueck says. "When you watch them, you understand why. They're extremely efficient. They're the best rebounding team in the country by a mile. They've been absolutely dominant."
LIke the Beavers, the Bears are very young, with two seniors, one junior, three sophomores and five freshmen.
"I'm extremely proud of our team considering all the off-the-court, real-life issues we've had to deal with," Mulkey says. "What has surprised me is how well they have been able to adapt and adjust to things that have happened."
Baylor is led by Cox, a 6-4 sophomore who averages 15.3 points and 9.8 rebounds, and Kalani Brown, a 6-7 junior who was Big 12 Player of the Year, averaging 20.1 points and 10.2 rebounds while shooting .660 from the field.
"They may be the best post duo in the country," Mulkey says. "They play well together, they are good friends, they have great chemistry and their size makes them really difficult to defend. Both of them can face up and aren't back-to-the-basket post players."
Says Rueck of Mulkey's assessment: "That's hard to argue. Cox is so versatile, inside and out. She can knock shots down, is an incredible passer, so agile. Kalani is imposing physically and has such a soft touch around the basket."
Each team has only two players who saw action in the 2016 matchup: Brown and senior guard Kristy Wallace for Baylor, senior center Marie Gulich and junior wing Katie McWilliams for Oregon State. It's a whole new ballgame, but a similar formula if the Beavers are to pull off an upset again.
"You have to make them miss shots, and you have to get rebounds," Rueck says. "You can't give them layups, and you can't let them shoot 51 percent. They're not easy to score against, either. It's going to take our best game of the year. It needs to be 40 minutes, too. We have to be ready to play from the beginning."