KNOXVILLE, Tenn. -- Unable to sleep as Saturday night edged toward Sunday morning, his standard state of agitation before a big game, Oregon State coach Scott Rueck stumbled across a statistic that made slumber even less likely. Tennessee had played at home 57 times since the NCAA tournament began in 1982. The first flagship of women's basketball was 57-0.
How cool, he thought, for Oregon State to have a chance to do something for the first time. So that was the message he repeated when players woke up and gathered for a shootaround.
Go out and make your own history.
The Beavers went out and missed 10 of their first 14 shots, turned the ball over six times in 10 minutes and saw their All-American center, Marie Gulich, commit her second foul reaching for a shot with 1.4 seconds to play in the first quarter. The ensuing free throw gave Tennessee a 10-point lead.
As motivational material, the message might need some fine-tuning.
Oregon State's start assuredly wasn't groundbreaking. The Thompson-Boling Arena faithful had seen visiting teams arrive with delusions of grandeur and do the same for more than 30 years.
It's what happened next that was both historic and a glimpse at history being written in real time.
Unbothered by its start, No. 6 Oregon State beat No. 3 Tennessee 66-59. The Pac-12 team owned the final three quarters. Arguably the most woebegone program in Division I when Rueck left Division III to take over in 2010, a shell of a team with no momentum and barely more players, Oregon State is headed to the Sweet 16 for the third year in a row. That after beginning this season with three new starters and without the best player in program history.
And for the first time, back-to-back Sweet 16s will take place without the Lady Vols.
All because the Beavers indeed became the first team to beat the Lady Vols on their own court. Not by playing the game of their lives but by playing like themselves for three quarters.
"I couldn't be happier or more proud of this group," Rueck said. "The journey that they've been on this year prepared them for this challenge today in many ways. We knew there was going to be a lot of adversity today, coming into a storied venue against an incredible team. ...
"This is a game that earlier this year we would have lost."
A lot of teams would have lost at any point in their season if they trailed Tennessee 19-9 at the end of the first quarter and 21-11 a few minutes into the second quarter. Only a handful of teams from major conferences entered the second round with a better assist-to-turnover ratio this season than Oregon State, which led the Pac-12 in that regard. But carrying over the defensive energy that helped it score 60-plus points in the second half of its first-round win, Tennessee came out and pressured Oregon State from sideline to sideline and almost end line to end line.
"We haven't really gone through a lot of presses, besides UCLA and USC and those schools," Oregon State's Kat Tudor said. "They were just long and athletic. It's hard to get around them. But yesterday, that was pretty much our main focus in practice, how we were going to defeat that."
It didn't help that Gulich picked up her second foul in those waning seconds of the first quarter. Rueck left her in for the opening minutes of the second quarter, and she helped as the Beavers settled down and began to chip away at the lead. But with more than six minutes to play, the coach sat her down rather than risk a fatigued third foul before halftime.
Yet the deficit kept shrinking. Tudor hit her first and ultimately only 3-pointer of the game to cut it to a single point at 21-20. After Tennessee ended the 9-0 run, Mikayla Pivec hit a jumper to get the deficit back to a single point and Tudor hit two free throws to give Oregon State its first lead.
Even though Tennessee's Rennia Davis hit a long 3-pointer just before the halftime buzzer to send the Lady Vols in with the lead, the Beavers had regained all momentum lost early on.
"You just have to stay focused," Tudor said. "We don't let each other get down on ourselves. Some teams, you see them bicker at each other and just get angry."
Oregon State set itself up for success on both ends of the court. On defense, the Beavers switched early to a 2-3 zone that slowed Tennessee. The visitors further slowed the pace by taking care of the ball and taking their time on offense.
The Beavers had the ball for 36 seconds before Katie McWilliams hit a 3-pointer to pull them within one point at 39-38 late in the third quarter. They had it for 18 seconds before freshman Aleah Goodman hit the shot that put them ahead to stay at 40-39. The final points of the third quarter came after possessing the ball for 26 and 17 seconds, respectively.
"It seemed like they were getting everything they wanted," Tennessee's Mercedes Russell said. "Obviously it wasn't a pretty night on offense for us, but I felt like we could have won with our defense."
Forced to defend for so long, Tennessee became stagnant on offense, too, its rhythm gone.
Oregon State won without a big offensive game from Gulich, who was invaluable in keeping her team close in rebounding but scored a modest 14 points. The Beavers won despite Tudor hitting just that one 3-pointer and one of the NCAA's best 3-point shooting teams hitting just five.
"When I first started watching film, I thought we were going to need to make 20," Rueck said of the 3-point line. "That was my first thought, 'We're really going to have to shoot the ball -- they're taking the rim away.'"
Yet the Beavers stayed patient. When Gulich was out, replaced by Joanna Grymek, a junior college transfer with imposing size but limited point production, the guards kept running the same pick-and-roll and pick-and-pop action that is almost unstoppable with Gulich. They waited for lanes to open and drove enough to get 23 free throw attempts -- much to the consternation of fans unfamiliar with the visiting team enjoying an advantage at the free throw line.
Oregon State lost early in the season against Notre Dame and Duke. It lost in embarrassing fashion in a conference trip to UCLA and USC in early January. Without Sydney Wiese, whose star transcended a basketball program and made her a mainstream star in the state before she ventured off to the WNBA, Oregon State was a team figuring out its limits. But then it split games against Oregon in its biggest rivalry. And when they started slowly in games against UCLA and Arizona State late in the regular season, the Beavers came back -- slowly, methodically, one shot clock at a time.
"We've been in that situation before, where we've been down in the first quarter, even the second quarter, and we've had to bounce back," McWilliams said. "It's not fun to do, but it's just something that sometimes happens."
Even in Knoxville. Even when the opponent is 57-0. And that's perhaps the most impressive part of what Oregon State did. It didn't shock the world by playing a perfect game. It wasn't an upset for the ages. It came in as an equal, whatever the seeding said, and played that way.
The world has changed. Tennessee can't be what Tennessee once was because of programs like Oregon State, because other people have centers like Gulich, freshmen who can play all 40 minutes like Taya Corosdale and a backcourt like Goodman, McWilliams, Pivec and Tudor.
Someone just had to be the first to end this particular chapter in the sport's history.
"It made me a little nervous because I didn't know at first what the record was," Tudor said of Rueck's pregame message. "But it didn't really change our minds. We were focused. We just kind of brushed that off.
"Now it's cool that we did it. I mean, 57-1, it's just cool to break records like that."