BY KERRY EGGERS/PORTLAND TRIBUNE/Getting so close to Final Four will 'fuel' team, coach Scott Rueck says

TRIBUNE PHOTO: JAIME VALDEZ - Kat Tudor wiill be one of several key returning players next season for Oregon State women's basketball.CORVALLIS — The "now" was pretty good for Oregon State on the women's basketball scene this season.

The future is a portent of even better things ahead.

In his eighth season at the OSU helm, Scott Rueck took the Beavers to a 26-8 record, an Elite Eight appearance and showcase NCAA Tournament victories over Tennessee and Baylor. After losing All-America point guard Sydney Wiese and Pac-12 Defensive Player of the Year Gabby Hansen from the 2016-17 squad, the Beavers were supposed to be in a rebuilding year.

"When expectations are lower, it tends to be more fun," Rueck says. "You're doing what people don't expect, which is a fun thing in life, right? This year had that element to it ... it was a rewarding, fun season."

The six days spanning the tournament triumphs against the Volunteers and Bears "was one of the best weeks I've experienced as a coach," Rueck says.

"It speaks to the character of a team that had so far to go at the beginning of the year and was able to accomplish so much," he says. "It also speaks to Marie Gulich's ability to lead. I'm so happy people got to see her do what she did, to see how talented and what a great competitor she is."

The 6-5 Gulich — the Pac-12 Defensive Player of the Year and a third-team AP All-American — has departed to the pro ranks, but everyone else returns from this year's OSU team for the 2018-19 season.

"We're going to need to replace a huge hole in the middle," Rueck says. "But we have a ton of experience and talent coming back, along with some important new faces. I'm really excited. I can't wait for next year to come."

Four starters return — junior small forward Katie McWilliams, sophomore point guard Mikayla Pivec, sophomore shooting guard Kat Tudor and freshman power forward Taya Corosdale.

Guards Aleah Goodman and Taylor Kalmer and center Joanna Grymek are also back.

Then there are the additions. To say they are significant doesn't do the word justice.

Point guard Destiny Slocum has been on campus all season after a transfer from Maryland. Three high school seniors — 6-9 Andrea Aquino from Paraguay, 6-7 Patricia Morris from Duarte, California, and 5-11 Jasmine Simmons from Australia — will arrive in Corvallis late June.

Slocum was ESPN's No. 4 recruit in the 2016 class. Aquino was ranked No. 7 by ESPN this year. They are the first two top-10 recruits in Oregon State women's basketball history. In addition, Simmons was ranked No. 7 on ESPN's international list, and No. 1 at shooting guard.

"If you include Destiny, it's our highest-rated (recruiting) class ever," Rueck says.

Slocum will be eligible after sitting out this past season in Corvallis following a banner campaign at Maryland, where she was the Women's Basketball Coaches Association Freshman of the Year in 2016-17. The 5-7 native of Meridian, Idaho, made her presence felt this past season, practicing with the Beavers and providing off-the-court leadership.

"There were times when she was the best player on the floor," assistant coach Brian Hollsinger says.

"Destiny is dynamic in the spirit and the energy she plays with, and her skill set is remarkable," Rueck says. "She can create a shot for herself, but for others as well. It has been fun to watch her embrace the defensive end, which in a large sense is new. That's not the emphasis at Maryland. It has been neat to see her gain confidence in that part of her game.

"She is a big personality and loves the game. More than anything, she loves to compete. She has an impactful personality, which makes you a leader."

Aquino came to the United States in April 2015 at age 15, first living in Paterson, New Jersey, where she played as a junior. She moved to Los Angeles after the season, where she sat out the first half of the season due to transfer rules before joining Ribet Academy. In 15 games, Aquino averaged 10.1 points, 6.2 rebounds and 1.9 blocks for a team that went 28-6 and lost in the CIF Division I regional finals to state champion Serra.

"It's rare to see a player of her size with the skill set of a guard," Rueck says. "She shoots the 3 comfortably. She handles the ball like a guard and passes it easily. Like Marie before she came to us, Andrea hasn't spent much time with her back to the basket. She likes to block and change shots, she likes to rebound, she's very unselfish.

"For her, it's going to be about getting used to the speed and the physicality of the (college) game. How she adapts will determine how quickly she impacts us."

Simmons spent her final three years of high school on scholarship at Australia's National Center of Excellence. She was captain of Australia's U-17 national team that beat the U.S. on its way to the gold medal at the 2016 World Championships.

"Jaz was one of the two best players on that team," Rueck says. "She is an incredible player. I expect her to be a player who contributes immediately for us."

Morris, who averaged 17.3 points, 12.7 rebounds and 2.9 blocks as a junior at Duarte High in L.A. County, is a three-sport athlete who also lettered in swimming and tennis. Morris is a 4.0 student and, says Rueck, fluent in Mandarin.

"Trish is brilliant," the OSU coach says. "She's a bit off the radar as a player, but has a strong body and a huge upside.

"I see her on the same track as (former OSU All-America center) Ruth Hamblin. Trish wants to be great. She doesn't think she is great yet. She has a rare skill set with her length and ability to run the floor."

The center position will be shared by the two freshmen and 6-8 Joanna Grymek, the Polish native who backed up Gulich this season after transferring from Seward County (Kansas) JC. Grymek, who will be a senior next season, averaged 3.8 points and 2.8 rebounds while shooting .576 from the field for the Beavers.

"Jo learned a lot," Rueck says. "She came in very respectful of Marie, and deferred to her to a fault. When she got on the court, she produced at a level you didn't see in practice. Jo needs to get stronger, to work on her agility and athleticism. Her skill set is good around the basket. We're excited to work with her and help her find out what she can become next season."

Pivec, who played shooting guard as a freshman but moved to the point in Wiese's absence this season, will switch back to the 2 spot next season. The 5-8 sophomore was OSU's most well-rounded player, averaging 11.1 points, 7.1 rebounds and 5.0 assists. Pivec, Tudor, McWilliams, Goodman, Kalmer and Simmons will vie for playing time at the wing positions.

Rueck expects Goodman and the 6-3 Corosdale — who averaged 6.8 points and 4.2 rebounds while shooting .364 from 3-point range — to make large jumps between their freshman and sophomore seasons.

"There was no way for Taya or Aleah to understand what it's like to play Baylor or Louisville or to go through a Pac-12 season," the OSU coach says. "You're going through that first season basically blind. Now that vision of what it demands to win at the highest level is crystal clear. Those two should have phenomenal off-seasons, and they will."

Rueck teams are usually marked by 3-point sharpshooting and stingy defense. This season, Oregon State led the nation in 3-point accuracy (.404) and was eighth in opponents' field-goal percentage (.351). That shouldn't change much next season. Without Gulich and with Slocum coming aboard, the offense may be more upbeat. "We'll see how the pieces fit together," Rueck says.

The 2017-18 season ended with a painful 76-43 whipping by Louisville in the Elite Eight game. Rueck hopes there is a parallel between that game and the Beavers' 76-64 second-round loss to Gonzaga in 2014.

"That helped fueled our Final Four run the next year," he says. "As a coach, you never want to lose. But when you do, your mind goes straight ahead — how is this going to positively impact us?

"Being that close to the Final Four, (the Louisville defeat) wasn't fun. It's going to fuel this group. They have a very clear vision of what it demands to get to where they want to go."

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