KNOXVILLE, Tenn. -- Oregon State was already coasting toward a comfortable win against Western Kentucky in the first round of the NCAA tournament. But after a couple of less-than-productive possessions early in the fourth quarter, Oregon State coach Scott Rueck calmly offered some advice during a pause in play: "Don't make it hard."
He didn't seem to direct it at any individual, but sophomore point guard Mikayla Pivec was nearest to the coach at the time. On the ensuing possession, she faced up near the 3-point line on the left wing, split two defenders off the dribble and passed to an open Marie Gulich near the opposite elbow. Gulich knocked down the long jumper to extend Oregon State's lead from a comfortable 25 points to an even more comfortable 27 points.
The sixth-seeded Beavers rarely made it difficult for themselves in an 82-58 win against the No. 11 seed Lady Toppers. Indeed, until the NCAA selection committee sent them to Knoxville and seeded them three lines below host Tennessee, a team they trail by one place in the most recent Associated Press Top 25, Oregon State hadn't had as difficult a season as many imagined it might. That has something to do with the big German who made Thompson-Boling Arena her own in the second half Friday. It also has a lot to do with the sophomores who built the lead early.
Sophomores who are ready to give Tennessee's vaunted freshmen a game Sunday.
By the end of Friday's game, Oregon State's Gulich had a box score entry commensurate with the senior's All-America accolades. Gulich alone outscored Western Kentucky in the third quarter and finished the game with 29 points and 15 rebounds. She made 11 of 15 shots from the floor and all seven attempts from the free throw line. On a court that has been a stage for many over the years, she was a player ready for a different level of competition.
"She's very special," Western Kentucky coach Michelle Clark-Heard said. "When you can have a post player that can catch it in the backcourt and be able to bring it up and just be as fluent as she is and to be able to move ... she's a post player that's very hard to guard because she doesn't stop moving. She's very agile and she can finish, she can face up and she can shoot.
"She's a pro, that's basically how I can put it."
Before Gulich even reached double figures, Oregon State actually claimed an 18-point halftime lead and control of the game. The Beavers looked at ease from the outset, which differed from last year's tournament opener, when they sweated out the final minute and survived at the buzzer at home against Long Beach State.
When Western Kentucky tried early to take away Gulich, Pivec raced through the extra space for layups or set up the Beavers' offense for a Kat Tudor 3-pointer. Pivec and Tudor nearly outscored the Lady Toppers in the first half between the two of them. Pivec finished with 15 points, eight assists and no turnovers. Tudor finished with 19 points and hit 5 of 11 3-point attempts for a team that, thanks to her, leads the nation in 3-point accuracy.
"I think they grew up a lot," Gulich said of each player's second season. "Last season, they had players in front of them and they didn't quite know yet. And now this season, with every game, they're just getting more mature. They're growing up. I'm really proud of Mik, just her point guard position, she's making so much progress. And Kat outside, her 3-point shooting, and then she drives to the basket. They're competitors, and I'm really proud of them for that."
Western Kentucky tried to pressure Oregon State into mistakes, whether outright turnovers or just wasted possessions. The Lady Toppers switched defenses again and again. They pressured off made baskets. They pressured even when their own turnovers stopped play. It wasn't anything like 40 minutes of hell -- they didn't have the depth to do that. But it was a concerted effort to make the opponent, particularly Pivec, uncomfortable. It didn't work.
"I think for us, it came down to preparation," Pivec said. "We knew, especially once we got a lead, they were going to try and amp up the pressure and turn us over. [It was] just staying calm and attacking space when it was there."
Oregon State has the sixth-best record in the country since the start of the 2014-15 season, behind only Connecticut, Notre Dame, Baylor, Maryland and South Carolina. It's no coincidence most of its success came during Sydney Wiese's time in Corvallis. Moving on without her this season, the Beavers had several options at point guard. They had Katie McWilliams, the junior who generally handled the few minutes Wiese didn't play while resting or injured. They had freshman Aleah Goodman, ranked among the best point guards in her class.
They also had Pivec.
"And we knew that Mik played it in seventh grade," Rueck deadpanned.
Which means she had thrown javelin for Oregon State's track and field team more recently than she had played point guard. She started as a freshman, but when Rueck told her this fall that the new role was the best way for her to help the team, she took on the challenge. Pivec actually played in the post for her undersized high school team. Now, she's the point guard finding Gulich in transition or in the post.
"But I'm glad I'm not a post," the 5-foot-10 Pivec said. "There are some big girls in there now."
Western Kentucky tried to take away Gulich. Pivec and Tudor prevented that. The Lady Toppers tried to adjust and take away the 3-pointers. Enter Gulich.
Contrast that with the second game of the day, No. 3 Tennessee's 100-60 win against No. 14 Liberty that was in some ways almost as impressive for Tennessee's flaws as Oregon State's win was for its flawlessness. The Lady Vols looked early like a team with four freshmen and a roster with almost no NCAA tournament minutes beyond Jaime Nared and Mercedes Russell. Only a late run provided even the relative comfort of a 36-28 lead at halftime.
Then the Lady Vols scored 64 points in the second half, 32 of them from freshmen. They set a Tennessee record, no small thing for this particular program, by shooting 61.7 percent for the game -- 81 percent in the second half.
"We just talked about how we weren't getting enough transition points," said freshman Rennia Davis, who finished with 18 points and 11 rebounds. "That's kind of our game, playing fast and getting points off fast breaks. So I think that in the second half, we just tried to focus a little more on that."
There were flashes of brilliance, quite a few of them after halftime, but that has been a theme for the Lady Vols all season. When they do what they do well, they're difficult to beat. They just don't do it as consistently as the teams on the top two seed lines. Or as Oregon State did Friday.
Not yet, at least.
Flashes of brilliance were what Rueck said he saw in Pivec and Tudor a season ago. Like their Tennessee counterparts this season, they arrived with accolades and expectations. Pivec was, at the time she signed, the highest-ranked recruit in program history; Tudor was not far behind her.
"In both instances it seemed as though as soon as they get their opportunity, they're just going to go, and they're going to blossom," Rueck said of Pivec and Tudor. "Sometimes that sophomore year is tough. They've handled all the adjustments extremely well. ...
"I can't say I'm surprised; I'm pleased."