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Kerry Eggers On Sports/portland Tribune/early Practices, Italy Trip, Key Returners And New Talent Bolster Beavers' Hopes For 2019-20

PMG FILE PHOTO: JAIME VALDEZ - Destiny Slocum, Oregon State guard, reacts as the Beavers defeat Oregon last season.CORVALLIS — Don't blink, or you'll miss the offseason with Oregon State women's basketball.

During the spring, the Beavers took advantage of a change in NCAA regulations, increasing the time coaches can work with players from two to four hours per week. They spent most of the time in group sessions.

On Aug. 7, 10th-year head coach Scott Rueck and his staff will convene their 13 players for the 2019-20 season for the first of 10 allotted practice sessions as the Beavers prepare for their foreign trip to Italy later in the month.

In October, it will be time to start practice for a '19-20 campaign that will begin in early November. There is reason to believe the Beavers will be better than they were last season, when they finished 26-8, made the NCAA Tournament for the sixth straight year and reached the Sweet 16 for the fourth consecutive time.

"It didn't end quite the way we wanted it to," says Rueck, whose team placed third in the Pac-12 with a 14-4 mark but went 7-5 over the last six weeks and were ousted 61-44 by Louisville in the Sweet 16. "We learned some tough lessons down the stretch.

"It didn't end quite the way wanted it to. We didn't play our best basketball at the end. We were running on fumes in many ways. That spurred a lot of motivation going into this offseason."

Losing only starting small forward Katie McWilliams and reserve center Joanna Grymek from last year's squad, Oregon State returns its top four scorers, including guard Kat Tudor, who missed all but 13 games with a knee injury a year ago. The Beavers intend to make a run at reclaiming the Pac-12 championship they won three straight times from 2015-17.

"Why not us?" Rueck asks. "That's how (the players) think. That's how they live. We're excited about next year."

It won't be easy in what is generally considered the best conference in the country. There were eight 20-win teams in the Pac-12 last season. Six made the NCAA Tournament and five advanced to the Sweet 16. Oregon and Stanford, who finished 1-2 in the conference last season, are loaded with talent again.

But Oregon State returns guards Mikayla Pivec and Destiny Slocum — both named to the 15-player all-Pac-12 team last season — regains the services of the sharp-shooting Tudor and adds its most highly regarded recruiting class ever.

Kennedy Brown, a 6-6 forward from Derby, Kansas, is Oregon State's first McDonald's All-American (Slocum played in the game but as a recruit of Maryland, where she played her freshman season before transferring). Taylor Jones, a 6-3 center/forward out of Dallas, is a two-time Adidas All-American and a three-time first-team all-Texas selection. Both are five-star recruits. The third member of the class is 6-9 Jelena Mitrovic from Serbia, ranked by one recruiting service as the No. 3 prospect out of Europe.

"I anticipate all of them making an immediate impact for us next season," Rueck says.

Three of OSU's returnees are involved in international competition this summer. Pivec is a member of the U.S. team that will participate in the Pan American Games in Peru. Junior guard Aleah Goodman is representing USA Basketball in 3x3 competition, already having played in China and Italy with another event scheduled for Russia. Sophomore guard Jasmine Simmons represented gold-medalist Australia in the World University Games in Italy.

The team leaders next season will be Pivec, a 5-10 senior, and Slocum, a 5-7 junior. Rueck considered Pivec the most versatile player in the league last season, averaging 15.2 points, 9.2 rebounds and 3.4 assists while shooting .526 from the field and .417 from 3-point range.

"I've learned not to put too many limits on Mik," Rueck says. "She tends to be whatever the team needs at any moment in so many ways. Next year, she has the opportunity to grow into even more of a leadership role. i see her as somebody willing able to take our in-comers under her wing.

"Mik is one of those people who is a caretaker when it comes to relationships. I can see her helping the freshman find their way early and bringing a lot of confidence to our team."

After spending a redshirt year in Corvallis in 2017-18, Slocum stepped in and started all 34 games last season, averaging team highs in scoring (15.4) and assists (4.5) while shooting .456 from the field and .368 on 3-point attempts.

"Coming in with high expectations and carrying them through a really tricky year, Destiny did a phenomenal job," Rueck says. "Everybody expected her to come in and dominate, but that's not how it works in the Pac-12. It's about fitting in and understanding the intensity of the conference, and she handled it incredibly well. She'll be much more comfortable, and I think she'll be more consistent with her performance next season."

Tudor — one of the best pure shooters in the Rueck era — fulfilled the sixth-player role until she went down with the ACL injury that required surgery. The knee is healed, her rehab is on schedule and she'll accompany the Beavers to Italy in August. Tudor, incidentally, is in the process of appealing to the NCAA for an additional year of eligibility.

"I'm not sure how we'll use her, because we're going to have a lot of competition for the starting spots," Rueck says. "But I can tell you that Kat is going to play a massive role for us next season."

Rueck may go with a smaller lineup often next season due to depth at the point guard and wing positions. In addition to Pivec, Slocum and Tudor, there are Goodman and Simmons.

With Tudor out last season, Goodman filled the sixth-player role, averaging 10.7 points, shooting .394 from 3-point range and hitting free throws at a .935 clip, which would have ranked third nationally had she enough attempts to qualify.

"Aleah's confidence and ability is continuing to grow," Rueck says. "She is poised to have another amazing year."

The 5-11 Simmons played sparingly a year ago.

"It was hard to find 'Jas' minutes last season with the depth or our guards," Rueck says. "She had some good moments, but they were sporadic. She wasn't in the regular rotation. I want that to change this year.

"She's athletic and dynamic in the open court. We're working on developing her as a scorer and a catch-and-shoot player, and that's where we're headed with her."

Taya Corosdale has the most experience of any front-line returnee. The 6-3 junior forward and two-year starter had a disappointing sophomore season, averaging 6.9 points while shooting .382 from the field and .298 from 3-point range. She played more minutes than anyone but Pivec.

"Taya is a great rebounder (7.8 per game last season, second-best on the team) and long-range shooter," Rueck says. "Now she's trying to add a back-to-the-basket game, a pull-up jumper and attacking the rim. I feel like she's just scratching the surface."

Also back on the front-line are seniors Madison Washington and Janessa Thropay and 6-7 sophomore Patricia Morris, the latter showing plenty of prowess in the 110 minutes she saw on the court a year ago.

"We saw flashes of big 'wow' moments from Trish," Rueck says. "She has a bright future because of her natural abilities and work ethic."

Andrea Aquino, the ballyhooed freshman 6-9 center from Paraguay who redshirted last season due to an unspecified heart condition, continues to be a question mark. In June, Aquino wore a boot to protect what is believed to be a stress reaction in her left foot. She has not yet been given medical clearance to begin full basketball duties on the court.

"We're waiting word on that," Rueck says. "We're hoping for the best but preparing to be without her next season. That's really all we can do."

It will be a bonus if the sweet-shooting, athletic Aquino — the nation's No. 7 recruit a year ago — can play. If not, the Beavers are bringing on some remarkable young talent to fill the breech.

Brown, the No. 19-rated player in the nation by ESPN, is a three-time all-Kansas honoree, was the state's 6A Player of the Year as a senior and led Derby High to its first state title as a junior. Rueck compares her skills with those of former OSU All-America center Marie Gulich.

"I don't know if I've ever seen a high school post with more fundamental feet than Kennedy," the OSU coach says. "She's a multi-faceted player who can play three positions. We haven't had a player of her height as comfortable at the 3-point line. She's a great passer and a natural defender.

"And she's an incredible leader. That's one of the things that stood out during the recruiting process — the way she galvanized her (high school) team. Her presence is impressive."

Brown graduated from high school with a weighted 4.42 grade-point average.

Jones, ranked the No. 15 player in the nation last year by Prospects Nation, is a three-time first-team all-Texas selection who led Dallas Christian to a pair of state titles during her high school career. Rueck believes she could have been a McDonald's all-America selection had she not missed playing AAU ball last summer coming off an injury. Jones is a center whom Rueck hopes to develop into a 4-5 player during her career at OSU.

"Taylor has long arms and plays bigger than 6-3," he says. "She has a beautiful jump hook and is a tenacious rebounder and shot-blocker. She is athletic and has spent a lot of time working to develop her perimeter game."

Mitrovic played for the Novosadska ZKA club in Serbia, where she was named the league MVP and finals MVP at both the U18 and U16 levels. She averaged 11.7 points and 11.3 rebounds for her country at the 2018 U-18 European Championships. Mitrovic arrived in Corvallis in late June with a knee injury that doctors believe is minor, Rueck says, and that surgery won't be necessary.

Rueck scouted Mitrovic in a tournament in Italy last year.

"When I got back, I told our coaches, 'She's really good, and she fits us,' " Rueck says.

The OSU coach says Mitrovic is somewhere between Grymek and ex-OSU star Ruth Hamblin in terms of athleticism, "but Jelena has a quick twitch to her. The U.S. college game is going to be a different speed for her, but she'll adjust. She can shoot from the perimeter, is a great outlet passer and has amazing hands for a player that size. And she can finish with both hands.

"There are not many post players like her. i'm excited to get her out of that knee brace when she can and get to work with her."

Rueck already has one verbal commitment for the class of 2020 — 6-1 Sasha Goforth of Fayetteville, Arkansas, who narrowed her choices to Arkansas, Texas A&M and OSU before picking the Beavers. ESPN rates her a four-star, the nation's No. 4 guard and No. 21 overall in the 2020 class. Prospects Nation ranks her the nation's No. 1 wing and No. 10 overall recruit. As a junior, Goforth averaged 16.8 points and 5.2 rebounds and was Arkansas Gatorade Player of the Year. OSU coaches believe she is already a superior perimeter defender to anyone they have on their squad next season.

Recruiting blue-chip prospects has grown easier since Oregon State's Final Four appearance in 2016, highlighted by an Elite Eight upset of Baylor in Dallas.

"These recruits we just welcomed to campus are a result of that first win over Baylor," Rueck says. "We've been able to reach out across the U.S. and get commitments from Kansas and Texas. That wasn't possible several years ago. Our program is viewed at a different level now."

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