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Beavers ready for NCAA home date

CORVALLIS — When the Oregon State women’s basketball team earned an NCAA tournament bid last season, the first in 18 years, it came as a shock.

The Beavers closed the season by winning nine straight Pac-12 games and the streak stretched to 11 before they fell in the title game of the Pac-12 tournament.

OSU was the No. 9 seed last season and went to Seattle for the first and second rounds, where they knocked off No. 8 seed Middle Tennessee before falling to No. 1 seed South Carolina.

That success, and disappointment of a loss, fueled the Beavers in the offseason.

The goal was to get back and go farther — all the way to the national title.

OSU (26-4) has accomplished the first part as the Beavers received a No. 3 seed and will host the first and second rounds — the NCAA changed the rules to allow the top 16 seeds to host this season. They take on No. 14 seed South Dakota State (25-7) at 2 p.m. today in Gill Coliseum.

No. 6 George Washington (29-3) takes on No. 11 seed Gonzaga (24-7) at 4:30 p.m. Friday with the winners facing off on Sunday at a time to be determined.

While last year’s late run allowed the Beavers to be a surprise, there is no doubt they had this return trip — and home games — in mind from the start of the season.

“I think we’re still having fun with it but we’re working so much harder and our focus is a lot clearer,” sophomore point guard Sydney Wiese said Thursday morning. “We know what we want to get out of this tournament this time.

“Not taking away anything from last year, I know that last year we still wanted to get deep into the tournament and make a big run, but I think it’s more familiar to us. We’re taking the right steps in the right direction and we’re preparing a lot harder and pushing each other.”

What is also different this season is the Beavers are playing at home. So while the other three teams have had to deal with travel, OSU players have been practicing on a familiar court and sleeping in their own beds.

“It’s definitely a little bit different but at the same time it has this very official feel, there’s all these rules we can’t do so that’s kind of interesting,” junior center Ruth Hamblin, the Pac-12’s defensive player of the year, said. “It makes it feel like an away game even though we’re very comfortable and we’re at home.”

Being at home allows the Beavers a chance to play in front of a fan base that averaged 4,167 per game this season.

“I love that we get to share it with our fans,” said Beaver coach Scott Rueck. “It’s an incredible experience to be in the tournament, to have it here in front of them, we love that, we play for these people.”

But don’t expect that to hold too much weight. Rueck said the crowd won’t intimidate anybody.

“If they’re intimidated it’s because of something we did on the floor,” he said. “We understand we have to go out and play our best and tune out everything else.”

Added Hamblin: “Obviously playing at home is cool to be able to put on a bit of a show for our fan base but it doesn’t really give us any advantage on the court because everyone’s coming in prepared, they’ve been working hard all season so they’re not coming in intimidated and we know that.”

George Washington and South Dakota State enter the tournament on a roll. The Colonials and Jackrabbits have both won eight straight while Gonzaga and OSU are coming off losses in their respective conference tournaments.

“I think that we responded well to that,” Wiese said of the loss to Colorado in the quarterfinals of the Pac-12 tournament. “Once we got back to practice, we didn’t necessarily forget about it but I think it fueled us and we competed so hard last week and it was intense practices. And going into this week, too, preparing for South Dakota State, I think our mindset is just renewed and rejuvenated going into the last part of the season.”

The Beavers expect the best shot from the Jackrabbits, who have been to the tournament six of the last seven seasons.

“We see they are a very hard-working, gritty team,” Hamblin said. “They’re just very tough and physical, so I think that’s going to be a huge part of the game, responding to that and raising the level.”

Added Rueck: “We just have to play possession by possession. We look at this team and we know they expect to win, that’s what they’ve done. … We respect our opponent and we know we have to play our best to win.”