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Kerry Eggers on Sports: 'Competitive' Oregon State women face tough Pac-12 slate

COURTESY PHOTO: OREGON STATE UNIVERSITY - Taylor Jones, 6-4, is one of two freshman front-court players with key roles this season for the undefeated Oregon State Beavers.CORVALLIS — It's January, and an undefeated record and a No. 3 national ranking comes with great expectations. Oregon State did not meet them against Colorado on Sunday at Gill Coliseum.

Oh, the Beavers (14-0 overall, 2-0 in Pac-12 play) won 72-60 against a Colorado team that came in with a 12-1 record. But they didn't look like a No. 3 team — not in the country, nor maybe even the Pac-12.

"We were not at our best today," OSU senior Mikayla Pivec said.

Perhaps that's the beauty of it — winning fairly comfortably against a decent opponent when not on top of your game. When you've won every game, what's there to complain about?

But Sunday's performance didn't convince this aging scribe that the Beavers are Final Four material, at least not yet. And isn't that what a No. 3 ranking is all about?

The Buffaloes were coming off a 104-46 pummeling by No. 2-ranked Oregon, probably the most one-sided defeat ever absorbed by an NCAA Division I team with a 12-0 mark. Then, three minutes into Sunday's game against OSU, they lost 6-4 center Charlotte Whittaker to a knee injury.

And still the Buffaloes, despite missing 11 of their first 13 shots, were able to take a six-point lead late in the first quarter and rally from a 40-30 halftime deficit to draw within 52-48 early in the final period.

Colorado is a strong rebounding club that came in averaging a plus-11.2 per game, but Oregon State shouldn't have allowed the Buffaloes 18 offensive boards.

The Buffaloes missed a lot of easy shots, but so did the Beavers, with 21 clankers in the paint. They were an almost unbelievable 2 for 17 from the field in the third quarter.

"A lot of (the misses) were good looks, too," Pivec said.

The Buffaloes, embarrassed in Eugene, didn't want it to happen again.

"I knew they'd be very focused coming off their game (against Oregon)," Oregon State coach Scott Rueck said. "That was a throwaway almost in their minds. They were ready to get back to the 12-0 team that they were."

The Buffaloes didn't get there. Oregon State won by limiting them to .319 shooting from the field, and the Buffaloes helped out by going 7 for 16 at the foul line.

The Beavers wouldn't have done it without their leaders. The 6-foot Pivec was her usual all-around self, narrowly missing a triple-double with 16 points, 15 rebounds and eight assists in a 40-minute feature performance. Junior guard Destiny Slocum hit her first four 3-point attempts and finished with 18 points in 35 minutes.

Oregon State freshmen twin towers — 6-4 Taylor Jones and 6-6 Kennedy Brown — combined for 28 points, 18 rebounds and nine blocked shots. Those are outstanding numbers against any conference opponent.

I grabbed Rueck afterward and asked the 10th-year head coach if, besides the unblemished record, he is happy with where his team is at as it nears the midway point of the regular season.

"Love where we're at," Rueck said. "We're so competitive. When the team has to rise, (the players) have proven that they can.

"We have some room to grow, no question. The two freshmen are playing tons of minutes and have such big roles. We're probably right where we should be. We're defending well enough to win, and the offense is coming."

Defense has been the calling card of Rueck's teams since he arrived at Oregon State. A year ago, the Beavers went 26-8 and reached the Sweet 16 for the fourth straight season with what Rueck told me was "the weakest defensive team I've had in my time at OSU."

This season, Oregon State ranks among the top 10 nationally in scoring defense (52.9 points allowed per game) and opponents' field-goal percentage (.322) and is holding foes to .267 shooting from the 3-point line. Last season, those numbers were 61.2, .360 and .298.

"The defense right now is ahead of the offense," he said. "A year ago, it was the opposite. That was our weakness — getting a stop when we needed one. That's why our games were so close all season long, and we had a hard time putting people away.

"This year, the defense is at a completely different level. There is a desire to be a great defensive team, with the understanding that we need to be to get to where we want to go."

Jones and Brown are still learning the defensive nuances of the college game, including the need to show and come out to defend the perimeter off a pick-and-roll. They're getting a lot done on the inside, though, and showing potential to fill a role occupied by great centers of the recent past such as Ruth Hamblin and Marie Gulich.

Oregon State's key veterans besides Pivec and Slocum are the team's two best pure shooters — junior Aleah Goodman and Kat Tudor, who rank 1-2 on the school's career 3-point accuracy list (Goodman at .420, Tudor at .417).

Neither had her shooting eye Sunday. Goodman was 1 for 7 from the field — 1 for 5 from 3-point range — and Tudor was 1 for 3 from the field and 2 for 5 from the foul line.

For the season, Goodman — last year's Pac-12 Sixth Player of the Year — is shooting .409 from the field and an excellent .411 from the 3-point line. Over the last seven games, though, the 5-9 La Salle Prep grad — now a member of the starting lineup — is shooting 10 for 37 (.270) from the field and 6 for 26 (.231) from 3-point range.

Tudor, coming back from ACL knee surgery, is shooting .407 from the field and .375 from beyond the arc. Yet she has made only 11 of 20 (.550) free-throw attempts.

"They're two veterans who have been through all the wars," Rueck said. "Aleah is running our show this year, playing at the point more than she's ever played. She is understanding our concepts, getting the ball where it needs to go and handling pressure better than she ever has.

"Kat's finding her way. We knew there was going to be a progression coming back and playing at this intensity. She's the ultimate competitor. I have no doubts about her. There are ebbs and flows in every season, but I'm pleased with both of them."

If Oregon State is to beat the heavyweights remaining on the schedule, though, Goodman and Tudor will have to regain their touch from the outside.

Jones and Brown are carrying the load inside with the loss of 6-3 junior Taya Corosdale, who was lost for the season after two games due to hamstring surgery. Corosdale provided experience and depth at the 4 and 5 positions. The Beavers don't have that now. The loss of either Jones or Brown for an extended period would be devastating.

And the ante is being raised as Oregon State digs into the conference schedule. Four Pac-12 schools are among the top 10 — Stanford is No. 5, UCLA No. 10 — and Arizona is ranked 18th.

"The conference (season) is here," Rueck said. "Every game is going to be an absolute war."

That's overstating it, but there aren't a lot of gimmes. UCLA and Oregon State are unbeaten and Oregon, Stanford and Arizona have one loss apiece. Washington (10-4) and Arizona State (11-4) are potential NCAA Tournament teams.

Oregon State heads to the Valley of the Sun for games at Arizona on Friday and Arizona State on Sunday. If the Beavers perform as they did against Colorado, they may lose both.

"We have to be more consistent with our play through all four quarters," Slocum said. "Impose our will on everyone."

"Coach (Rueck) always talks about not playing to the scoreboard," Pivec said. "If you're playing to the scoreboard, you're not going to play your best all the time. We're trying to play each possession as well as we can.

"Most of the year so far, we've played two or three good quarters in a game. Going forward, with some of the teams coming up, we'll have to be better."

Maybe it's just a matter of patience.

"We're learning on the fly in some ways with two freshmen out there," Rueck said. "This program's (mode of operation) is to be tough and grind out wins. That's what we've done since ... well, since we started winning six or seven years ago.

"In games where it's tight for three quarters, we find a way to pull away and win down the stretch. It's what you have to do in this conference. We're built for that. If the games are close, we're very comfortable in that environment. We're continuing to learn while we're winning, which is a great place to be."

The national ranking, Pivec said, doesn't signal pressure.

"It's a privilege," she said. "It's exciting. Each game, we're trying to be our best."

Oregon State has never had a higher ranking. The Beavers have never been undefeated this far into a season. In her first three seasons, Pivec played on teams that went a collective 83-21, including 44-10 in Pac-12 action, and advanced to either the Sweet 16 or Elite Eight. Does this OSU team have the potential to go even farther?

"It does," Pivec said. "We have a lot of different pieces. We've had some very talented players in the past. But this veteran group, along with the talented freshmen, has the potential to do some real damage this year."

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