In 2013, when the Connecticut trio of Breanna Stewart, Moriah Jefferson and Morgan Tuck was winning the first of three consecutive national championships, most of the core that now makes up Oregon State's first Final Four trip -- seniors Jamie Weisner, Deven Hunter and Ruth Hamblin -- was suffering through a 10-21 season. The Beavers finished 11th in the Pac-12 that season.
Three years later, with junior point guard Sydney Wiese and classmate Gabby Hanson added to the mix, Oregon State is 32-4 and won the Pac-12 regular-season and tournament titles, and upset the top seed to advance from the Dallas Regional.
UConn coach Geno Auriemma might cut down the nets for an 11th time when all is said and done in Indianapolis, but Oregon State coach Scott Rueck already owns the award for biggest turnaround in this Final Four.
Can Oregon State stop UConn's 73-game win streak and quest for an unprecedented four-peat when the teams meet in the national semifinals Sunday (ESPN, 6:30 p.m. ET)?
The Huskies are in their ninth straight Final Four (17th overall) and have won an NCAA tournament-record 22 consecutive games, but the heavy favorite is surrounded by newbies at women's basketball's biggest event.
Oregon State, Syracuse and Washington have never been to a Final Four before, marking the first time since 1994 that three teams are making their debut in the same season. For UConn, the Final Four is as part of the calendar as Thanksgiving and tax day. Even with the storyline of UConn chasing an unprecedented four-peat, this is the oddest and freshest Final Four the Huskies have been a part of since this string of nine in a row began in 2008.
Why they'll win the national title
Connecticut: The question really is how can the Huskies not win a fourth straight national championship. It's at least a shorter -- if not a much harder -- answer to come by. UConn is better than everyone else, and by a wide margin. That much has been understood for some time now, but it's the ingredients to the dominance that make the recipe so tasty. It's not only that the Huskies are more talented (they are) or better coached (they are). It's all of that and everything in between.
UConn scores more and gives up fewer points than anyone. But that's the simple part. The complicated part is also rating first in assist-to-turnover ratio while nearly always playing at a crisp pace. The Huskies manage to also lead the country in blocked shots per game and are fifth in steals, while committing fewer fouls than anyone else. That's the disciplined approach, the coaching acumen, the willingness of the players to be coached, and the attention to detail that used to be, but isn't so much anymore, overlooked about UConn's unbelievable success.
Stewart has long been known as the nation's best player. Jefferson this season probably became the second best. Tuck is certainly among the next five or six on the list, if not the third. Those three alone are a good enough explanation for why UConn will win it all again. That was their stated goal when they arrived in Storrs. Because the Huskies have been just that good, it is difficult to envision a scenario where Stewart, Jefferson and Tuck don't fulfill it.
Oregon State: To answer the question, we must first figure out how the Beavers can crack the code of the great firewall known as UConn.
The Beavers can defend, but any team that has a chance to topple the Huskies needs to be able to score along with UConn. At 67.5 points per game, no one would generally confuse Oregon State with that kind of explosive outfit, but the Beavers do have three diverse options to run at the top-ranked Huskies' defense.
Weisner was fourth in the Pac-12 in scoring (17.6 PPG), is fearless taking the ball to the basket, doesn't back down from big moments, and makes 45.1 percent of her 3-point attempts. Hamblin, a 6-foot-6 center, scored 11.8 points per game and gives the Beavers the kind of size in a low post threat that most teams don't have. Wiese, at 6-1 and left-handed, is a different kind of matchup at the point. She is the playmaker as evidenced by her 5.1 assists per game, but at times serves as the Beavers' biggest threat because of her quick release and ability to shoot off the dribble. She is the program's all-time leader in made 3-pointers (65 this season). All three have been the nucleus of the program's resurrection.
This Final Four is the culmination of a rebuilding project of epic proportions in Corvallis. Rueck took over in 2010 with essentially one Division I-caliber player. He had to hold tryouts just to put a roster together. The Beavers won nine games that season. Two years later, with his first substantial recruiting class competing as freshmen, they put up only 10 victories. But the plan was in place. When Wiese was added one year later, the Pac-12 afterthought became a conference contender, with a second-place finish.
Now Rueck has piloted Oregon State to consecutive Pac-12 regular-season titles and this trip to Indianapolis.
The Beavers' strength is that they know what they are -- essentially grinders with talent -- and execute at a high level. In that respect they are similar to UConn. In a sport -- and particularly in this tournament -- in which games are mostly about matchups, Oregon State thrives. Because of their consistency of on-court personality, the type of opponent doesn't matter. The Beavers beat perimeter-dominated teams St. Bonaventure and DePaul in the second round and regional semifinals, respectively. Weisner made seven 3-pointers on her way to a career-high 38 points, essentially out DePaul-ing the Blue Demons in the Sweet 16. They edged tall and physical Baylor in the Dallas Regional final in a game largely decided in the paint and by which team was tougher.
Different styles. Different playing environments. The same result for the true-to-self Beavers.
Of course, playing UConn is a new algorithm altogether. In this game the Beavers probably will have to play beyond themselves to topple a team destined to make history.
1. They both bring the D to Indy: The defining moment of this year's tournament so far was Stewart blocking three shots on one possession against Duquesne in the second round. That sequence certainly exemplified the distinct and versatile talents of Stewart, but it also showcased how important defense is to the Huskies. Their star player went from baseline (where the first two blocks took place) to the 3-point line (where Stewart completed the rejection trifecta) in a matter of seconds to make plays. It's a fundamental part of what makes UConn so great. That same attitude is what Rueck has instilled in Corvallis.
If this was just about sizing up the numbers, a low-scoring game in Sunday's opener would seem inevitable. These are the No. 1 (UConn) and No. 6 (Oregon State) teams in fewest points allowed per game and the No. 1 (Oregon State) and No. 4 (UConn) in field goal percentage defense. Nothing comes easy against either team and it's as much about philosophy as it is personnel. It takes effort to cut off angles and makes opponents take the shots they don't necessarily want to take. That is a trademark of both teams.
For Oregon State, Wiese with her 6-1 frame and long arms is hard to shoot over or get around. Her point guard counterpart Jefferson is equal parts quick and intelligent, a deadly combination for an opponent trying to initiate an offensive possession.
Hamblin is a menace inside, but her 3.4 blocks per game are trumped by Stewart's 3.5.
No team in the game can truly score with UConn, but there might be one that can defend with the Huskies. That team is Oregon State.
2. Beavers need to control pace: Oregon State's ability to defend in the half court is exactly why the Beavers need to keep it that kind of game. The Huskies averaged 21.1 points per game more than Oregon State this season. The Beavers can't play at the tempo UConn wants to and still win. The good news is Oregon State already knows it can play slowly and deliberately. That's exactly how the Beavers beat Baylor, a team that came into the regional finals averaging 78.2 points and left with only 57 on the scoreboard. The Lady Bears were bigger and deeper. Oregon State limited possessions and then maximized its quality. In this case the Beavers managed to do it one possession better than Baylor.
Where they can limit the Huskies is taking advantage of another strength. Oregon State held the top rebounding margin in the Pac-12 and led the nation in defensive rebounding. If the Beavers can control the boards, they control the ball, which also means they engineer the pace.
3. UConn being UConn: The Huskies are the better team. That is no mystery. The prevailing thought for the past two seasons has been that the only way to beat the Huskies is for that opponent to play its A-game -- with UConn playing its C-game. The problem there, because of their approach and commitment to always reaching a higher level, is the Huskies never play a C-game. That has become especially true on this stage. They can execute within any style of play and always have a great defense on which to fall back even if their generally high-quality shot attempts aren't dropping.
Even in the unlikely scenario that Stewart, Jefferson and Tuck get caught up in the pressure of trying to make history with the fourth title on the line, that emotion won't last 40 minutes. Auriemma won't let it.
Oregon State's opportunity to win comes if the Beavers are able to muck up the game and maintain the ball in Weise's and Weisner's hands for most of the shot clock, making sure to score enough at the end of it. Then they must keep UConn off the glass.
Even then Huskies would still have their nearly 38 percent 3-point shooting, ability to get to the free throw line -- and 80 percent accuracy from there -- and their defense.
UConn is so good in so many areas that it doesn't need everything to win like the Huskies did in the 60-point devastation of Mississippi State in the regional semifinals. Texas outrebounded UConn and held a 14-1 advantage in points off turnovers and still lost by 21. The Huskies always have another answer, another gear. No one else does.
The names you know
Breanna Stewart: When asked whether Stewart was the best player in UConn history, Auriemma was completely non-committal, almost going out of his way not to answer. But what he did say was that no player in history has had the kind of impact on the NCAA tournament that Stewart has. She has three Final Four most outstanding player awards and has averaged 19.5 points, 9.1 rebounds, 3.3 blocks and 2.7 assists in 22 tournament games. She is currently fifth all time in points scored in the tournament, with a realistic chance to finish third behind Chamique Holdsclaw and Maya Moore after Tuesday night.
Jamie Weisner: South Carolina had Tiffany Mitchell. This latest incarnation of Notre Dame had Skylar Diggins. More than 10 years ago, Kim Mulkey and Baylor had Sophia Young. Every program that grows to elite status needs that one player to jump-start everything. Weisner is that player for Oregon State. The kind of heights Oregon State has now reached would be impossible to imagine had Weisner not believed in Rueck's vision. Her career began as the Beavers' leading scorer and only 10 wins as a freshman. It will end with Weisner as the club's top scorer again, but this time with least 32 wins, a school record.
Connecticut's Moriah Jefferson: No one player embodies what UConn truly is more than Jefferson. She came in highly rated and with expectations as a freshman, but just as the program seems to in each incarnation, Jefferson has evolved, grown and matured into so much more than just the speedy ball handler she was four years ago. Jefferson no longer "goes too fast" as Auriemma used to describe her game, yet she is still faster than everyone else. She has become a deadly shooter who makes 44 percent of her 3-pointers and 55.2 percent of her shots overall, primarily because Jefferson rarely takes a bad one. By the time Sunday's game is over, the 5-7 senior will also probably be UConn's all-time leader in assists.
Oregon State's Gabby Hanson: Ruth Hamblin is the two-time Pac-12 defensive player of the year, but Hanson is the Beavers' most versatile defender and usually draws the opponent's best offensive player. Rueck can use the 5-11 junior anywhere he needs her on that end of the floor. She averaged 7.9 points and 3.0 assists on the season, but the scoring number jumped to 12 points per game when she took over for the injured Wiese as the team's point guard for eight games midseason. Hanson usually defers to Wiese and Weisner, but her 10 points on 10 shots Monday night against Baylor were instrumental.