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Oregon St faces Tennessee with trip to Sweet 16 on line

KNOXVILLE, Tenn. — Oregon State coach Scott Rueck knew it was unlikely Evina Westbrook would stay home and commit to his program.

From the very beginning of the recruiting process, Westbrook told Rueck she wanted to go away to play in college.

The McDonald’s All-American became yet another Oregon product that signed with Tennessee. As Westbrook broke the news to Rueck, his message to her was, “All the best. Go dominate and I hope to see you in the Final Four.”

Rueck’s prediction fell a few rounds short.

No. 3 seed Tennessee (24-7) hosts No. 6 Oregon State (25-7) in the second round of the women’s NCAA Tournament on Sunday afternoon with a spot in the Sweet 16 of the Lexington Regional on the line.

The Lady Vols have three Oregon natives on their roster - Westbrook and seniors Mercedes Russell and Jaime Nared.

It’s one more than Oregon State has on its roster, and equals the number on OSU and the University of Oregon’s rosters combined.

Tennessee’s Oregon players had nothing but praise for Rueck and his staff leading up to the fifth meeting all-time between the programs.

“I have so much respect for them just because five, six, seven years ago nobody would have really thought Oregon State would have been where they are now,” Russell said. “One year when I was in high school, they had tryouts just to get players for the roster. It’s a credit to their coaching staff for where they are now.”

The Oregon-to-Tennessee recruiting pipeline started during Russell’s sophomore year of high school when former Tennessee player Niya Butts recommended the Lady Vols take a look at Russell.

Butts was coaching at the University of Arizona at the time, and knew Russell was out of her league. Russell’s AAU team included Nared and recent Tennessee graduate Jordan Reynolds.

“That is what happens when you are a former Lady Vol, we look out for each other,” Tennessee coach Holly Warlick said. “Niya had our back. She couldn’t get her, but she didn’t want anybody else to.”

The Oregon trail has become so familiar to the Tennessee coaching staff that the flight crew on the redeye from Atlanta to Portland knows assistant Dean Lockwood by his first name.

“You kind of joke if you are going to go all the way to Oregon, you are not going to go for hamburger,” Lockwood said. “These are Ruth’s Chris filets.”

Although Russell and Nared don’t personally know any players on OSU, Westbrook has a relationship with many of them. The freshman guard was high school teammates with OSU junior guard Katie McWilliams for two years at South Salem High, and played AAU with Kat Tudor, Mikayla Pivac and Aleah Goodman.

“I haven’t talked to any of them since they’ve been down here, but I’m really cool with all of them,” Westbrook said. “Whenever Katie and I see each other, I give her a hug and her dad was our coach in high school.”

Rueck holds no bitterness towards the Oregon natives for choosing Tennessee. He considers it part of his program’s evolution process. Keeping kids in state and securing the borders will come if OSU remains as successful as it’s been.

“We would’ve love to have them of course, but I can’t argue with their decisions,” Rueck said. “I think from everything I know that they’re happy with their decisions. All we hope as coaches is that they find a place for them.”

Oregon State will be playing on an opponent’s home court in the NCAA Tournament for the first time since Rueck arrived in 2010. Tennessee is 57-0 all-time in NCAA home games.

Rather than bemoan his team’s visiting status, Rueck is embracing the opportunity.

“What an awesome place to play. A place that has ‘Summitt’ on the court means a lot to all of us who are a part of this game,” said Rueck, referring to legendary Tennessee coach Pat Summitt. “It’s an honor to be out there and play.”

Oregon State’s Marie Gulich shoots during practice for the NCAA women’s college basketball tournament Thursday in Knoxville, Tenn. - The Associated Press