LEXINGTON, Ky. -- Kat Tudor passed the biggest test of her basketball life Friday, playing her part as No. 6 seed Oregon State got the Sweet 16 underway with an upset win against second-seeded Baylor.
It might even have been the most difficult test she took this week. Or maybe not.
Baylor was riding a 30-game win streak and offered up twin towers Kalani Brown and Lauren Cox. That's tricky.
But economics has surely defeated as many college students as Baylor coach Kim Mulkey. And before she could practice Wednesday morning, a practice that took place before Oregon State flew to Lexington on its third cross-country flight in a week, Tudor first had to take an econ final. Between a historic win in the second round and a more impressive one Friday, the Beavers had to squeeze in finals week at home.
"I think I did OK," Tudor said of the econ final. "It's not in yet, so I'm still a little nervous."
The grading was more immediate in Oregon State's 72-67 win against Baylor, which extends the Pac-12 team's postseason odyssey of miles, finals and games through at least Sunday. After handing Tennessee its first home loss in the NCAA tournament and Baylor its second loss of the season, Oregon State finds top-seeded Louisville standing between it and the Final Four after the Cardinals easily dispatched No. 4 seed Stanford in the nightcap.
No one knows more about Sweet 16 upsets than Louisville, which registered the grandest one of all time when it beat defending national champion Baylor in that round in 2013, and now finds itself the favorite asked to fend off a team on a roll. But if Louisville's win five years ago was the quintessential stunner, a daring game plan tailored to an opponent and executed with the assistance of an outrageous -- and uncharacteristic -- shooting performance from the 3-point line, Oregon State's win against the same opponent had more in common with successful study habits.
Trust that you know the material you spent all season learning.
Oregon State didn't cram a bunch of miracles into its preparation. With everything else on its schedule, it didn't have time to. It went with what it knew and waited to see if that was enough.
Granted, it helps when you have the best player on the court. And at least on this night, there wasn't any question as to that person's identity. Brown might be an All-American, Cox might be the same in waiting and a marvelous physical talent, but neither was Marie Gulich's equal Friday.
Someone with a vested interest in that not being the case nonetheless readily confirmed it.
"She has to be older than a senior because she played like she was older," Mulkey said. "I mean, she was dominant. We had nobody that could guard her. She just reminded me of my days back in international basketball, where she just dominated the floor -- shooting, rebounding, finding open players. She was by far the best player on the floor tonight, and she controlled the whole thing for her team."
"She was dominant. We had nobody that could guard her. ... She was by far the best player on the floor tonight." Baylor coach Kim Mulkey on Oregon State's Marie Gulich
Gulich scored 10 points in the first half, as many as she scored in the first half of her first two tournament games combined. She scored her first points on an elbow jumper, testing Brown with a couple of jab steps to make sure she had room to shoot. She scored with a post move, too quick across the lane for Brown. She hit a jumper from the wing. Brown got hers, too, beating Oregon State's scouting report with some long jumpers, but it was at worst a draw between the two All-Americans in the first half.
"Our scouting report said just attack her," Gulich said. "And that was my plan today. ... I think I just used my quickness really well against her. She's really tall, and she's strong, but I think I could get around her and have the shots over her. Defensively, my goal was just to keep her off the block, to just take away her left hand and to not make it easy on her."
Gulich was just getting started. As is often true, she got better in the second half by not doing anything differently. That sounds easy. It isn't. Not when the adrenaline fades. Not when the stakes are high. Not when the minutes pile up and there is no one on the bench who is going to take your place. Baylor knew the feeling. Without point guard Kristy Wallace -- the Australian's injury in late February the biggest blow in a season that lacked losses but not adversity -- an already short rotation shrank still more. Brown scored six points in the second half. Gulich scored 16.
Minute after minute, Oregon State still had the presence to take big shots, set screens or just generally demand an opponent's attention just long enough for a shooter like Tudor, who finished with 16 points, to get an open look.
Look at Oregon State's final basket, a Katie McWilliams 3-pointer with 12 seconds left that silenced Baylor's late surge. Gulich set the screen that Mikayla Pivec used to drive toward the basket and draw McWilliams' defender away from the shooter in the corner. All with Brown kept frozen in place away from the basket on the other side of the court lest Gulich get an open shot.
"She's hard to double because she faces up," Mulkey said. "She gets away from the basket. So she is one of those that's not just a back-to-the-basket post player. She sets those picks for the guards, but it's not like she's rolling to that block where you can double her a lot. She got some on-the-block stuff, one-on-one, but they run a system where you have to respect the shooters on the other side of the floor. So you don't know, 'How much do I really help off?' "
That wasn't anything Oregon State installed in the dark of night this week. Gulich has done that all season. McWilliams didn't cap off a game in which the Beavers shot the lights out. They hit nine 3-pointers, about their average this season. They shot 45 percent from beyond the arc, a tick above their average.
Nor did they try to reinvent the wheel against Brown and Cox, a combination of size unlike almost any other in the country. Oregon State did what it always does, playing behind Brown, not denying the entry passes but pushing her away from the basket and making her work. They focused on slowing transition, just as they did against Tennessee.
Just as they will have to against Louisville.
"It's what we do," Oregon State coach Scott Rueck said. "I mean, it's by design, the way we defend, the way we keep people out of transition. I would say it's our signature. We're in the top one, two, three, four in defensive field goal percentage every year, and it's because we like to stay basket side."
That is in some ways a bolder gamble, to trust that what didn't work in early losses to the likes of Notre Dame, Duke or UCLA would have taken hold enough to work against the Big 12 regular-season and tournament champion.
Then again, it required something of a bold gamble to believe Oregon State could in less than a decade raise itself from the dregs of Division I to be playing for its second trip to the Final Four in three years.
"It's an expectation of excellence throughout," Rueck said. "That's probably the thing I'm happiest about. This team is continuing that legacy of being incredible role models, not just to young girls, not just to young people, to everyone. I mean, they're inspirational, just the way they carry themselves. And it's not a women's basketball thing, it's a life thing. They do everything right and because of that, they can create experiences like what you just witnessed."
Not much feels better than walking out of a test you found yourself fully prepared for.
So Tudor will wait on the econ result. But Oregon State aced the basketball exam.