SEATTLE — For Oregon State, simply clinching a berth in the Women’s NCAA Tournament was a surprise. For Middle Tennessee State, OSU’s first-round opponent, it was almost expected.
These two programs have come from opposite backgrounds to get to where they are now. Oregon State (23-10, 13-5 Pac-12) has bounced back from a disappointing 10-21 season a year ago, whereas Middle Tennessee State is consistently good, compiling a 137-16 record in the past nine regular seasons.
But it doesn’t matter where they’ve been in seasons past. What matters is where they’re at now. As it stands, these two teams are quite similar in terms of how they play.
So even though the Beavers are playing an NCAA Tournament game for the first time in 18 years, they’re preparing for it just like any other. Despite the fact that no coach or player has any experience in the Big Dance, they aren’t letting that lack of experience get to their heads.
“We don’t want to psych ourselves out thinking about the NCAA Tournament,” said freshman point guard Sydney Wiese. “Obviously, we’re not going to overlook Middle Tennessee, they’re a great program and they’ve earned their way here. We prepared for this game the same way we’ve prepared for every other game this season.”
Even without an NCAA Tournament game under its belt, Oregon State does have some experience playing in big games. For example, the last game it played was for the Pac-12 Tournament Championship, which was held in the same arena that they’ll play their NCAA Tournament opener.
“We’re mature enough to realize that we have to treat this whole thing just like another game,” said head coach Scott Rueck. “I’m very grateful for the Pac-12 Tournament experience, the fact that we made it to the championship game, because this has a very similar feel to that.”
Meanwhile, Middle Tennessee State (29-4, 15-1 Conference USA) is making its sixth consecutive tournament appearance. But in the five previous years they’ve gone, the Blue Raiders have not advanced past the first round.
They’ve had a remarkable 2013-14 season thus far, even by their standards. After earning their sixth-straight regular season title, the Blue Raiders went on to win the Conference USA Tournament, to notch 29 total wins on the season. That mark is the second-highest in school history for the perennial C-USA powerhouse.
As for how these two teams play, there are some striking similarities. Each team has a strong presence inside, and that presence in the middle frees up shooters along the perimeter.
“Offensively, it’s a post-oriented style,” Rueck said. “So when I see four shooters around a post player, that is very familiar to me. They are a first-class program, and it’s been fun getting to learn about them.”
Senior forward Ebony Rowe leads Middle Tennessee. After averaging 21.3 points and 11.6 rebounds per game, Rowe was named the Conference USA Player of the Year.
“She’s very athletic,” Rueck said. “She loves to be right around the basket and score off the backboard with both hands. She can make outside open shots, but that’s not necessarily what she wants to do. She wants to go to the basket. She’s a slasher, so she cuts very well. You’ve got to neutralize her speed.”
Sophomore center Ruth Hamblin stands 6-foot-6, and is a commanding presence on defense. She totaled 133 blocks this season (4.03 per game), which is a single-season Pac-12 record. Stopping Rowe might not be plausible, but Rueck thinks the Beavers can slow her down — and that starts with Hamblin.
“Certainly, Ruth has a big size advantage over (Rowe),” Rueck said. “So it’s going to mean keeping her body away from her, staying out of foul trouble, challenging shots and rebounding. I don’t think you can stop Rowe, I think you just slow her down.”
Then on the defensive side of the ball, the similarities between OSU and MTSU continue.
“I look at the numbers, especially the defensive numbers, and they are almost identical in terms of points given up and field goal percentage defense,” Rueck said. “This team wins because of their defense. That’s the key — you have to score against them. It’s a team that wants to keep you in the 50s or lower. If they do that, then they’re going to have a chance to win.”
The numbers back this up. In the Blue Raiders’ 29 wins, they’ve held opponents to less than 53 points. In their four losses, they’ve given up 71.25 points. The Beavers score 71.2 points per game this season, and they’re at their best when offense comes from all five players on the court.
Oregon State’s first round game against Middle Tennessee State is set for a 5 p.m. Sunday tipoff. The game will be televised on ESPN2. Additionally, The Daily Barometer will be hosting a live chat on their website during the game.
Mitch Mahoney, sports reporter