INDIANAPOLIS -- Jamie Weisner and Sydney Wiese helped lead Oregon State from the bottom of Division I to the top of the mountain, only to find a volcano beneath their feet.
A volcano from the otherwise rolling hills of New England that erupted 120 of the past 121 times it rumbled.
When the Pac-12 champions reached Indianapolis this week for the program's first Final Four, each player found a gift bag waiting with items both commemorative, like a special edition blanket, and practical, like a charger for all the devices of modern life. They took in a fireworks show. They took a spin around the 2.5-mile oval of the Indianapolis Motor Speedway that never fails to wow those familiar with it only from television.
All of that awaited them. So did a semifinal against unbeaten and rarely tested Connecticut
Look out for the lava.
There is no easy formula to solve Connecticut. There isn't even a complicated formula. The Huskies win all their games by double digits. They outscored their first four opponents by a combined 76 points -- in the first quarters. All of this is rote by now.
So what is an opponent to do when a 32-4 record, Pac-12 title sweeps and an Elite Eight win against Baylor add up to prohibitive underdog?
"It's a privilege," Wiese said. "At the end of the day, they're another basketball team. But also at the end of the day, they're UConn. ... When I was in high school, even when I was a kid, I wanted to go to UConn. So to be able to go against them, finally, it's a dream come true."
To pull off a win, Wiese and Weisner will need to keep their feet on the edge of the caldera.
"What worries me is what I think, because what I think is they're really, really good," UConn coach Geno Auriemma said this week of Oregon State. "They've got great size, obviously, inside, so that takes care of a lot of problems that a lot of teams ... have to worry about, and they don't have to. They've got two great guards on the perimeter that are just dynamic. I love watching the way they play. I love watching the way they interact. They're hard-nosed, tough kids, gritty. They're not all just -- you know, some kids love to play as long as it's not getting down and dirty. Those [Oregon State] kids are tough."
What sets Oregon State apart inside is obvious. At 6-foot-6 and the Pac-12's all-time leading shot blocker, senior Ruth Hamblin is as game-altering an individual defensive figure as there this side of, let's say, Breanna Stewart. What rebuilt the program is the cohesiveness across the roster, each player doing her part. All of which will be needed Sunday. But so will something special, something above and beyond what Oregon State normally does. That is where Weisner and Wiese come in.
"In some senses their games are very different, but I would definitely say they feed off each other," junior Gabriella Hanson said of the two players she starts alongside in the backcourt. "Definitely those two, and obviously Ruth, carry us tremendously on the offensive end. When one is shooting well, the other one -- it's indescribable. When those two are on, it's insane. Being on the court watching it, it really is amazing, their shooting capabilities."
We have seen this before, although not, notably, in Connecticut's road to the Final Four.
For all the current obsession about the degree to which Connecticut dominates the sport, it was just a few years ago that Auriemma's team was locked in the most competitive stretch of a rivalry since the heyday of the now-defunct series against Tennessee. When Moriah Jefferson, Breanna Stewart and Morgan Tuck were freshmen, they lost three times in one season to Notre Dame. Those teams played 12 times during the final three seasons of the old Big East. Connecticut lost seven of those games.
In three Notre Dame wins during the 2011-12 season, Notre Dame's Skylar Diggins and Natalie Novosel averaged 37 field goal attempts and 15 free throw attempts per game. In three wins a season later, Diggins and Kayla McBride averaged 45 field goal attempts and nine free throw attempts per game.
All were unselfish players. Most games, each took what shots came to her within the flow of an offense and left points on the table. But in those epic games against Connecticut, they took over. They were rarely efficient in their shooting. They turned the ball over more. But they also made plays. It may take a perfect game to beat Connecticut, but it doesn't necessarily take perfect performances. Just commanding ones.
Wiese already watched Weisner, a comparable blend of Novosel's relentless attack and McBride's shooting stroke, do just that. She saw it most recently when Wiese had to watch from the bench with a hand injury in December and January. Oregon State wouldn't have gone from where it was when Weisner signed to where it is now if the senior didn't have that kind of will to complement skill.
"When one is shooting well, the other one -- it's indescribable. When those two are on, it's insane. Being on the court watching it, it really is amazing, their shooting capabilities." Oregon State junior Gabriella Hanson
"There are a few games there, I think of Stanford specifically, where she just completely willed our team to win," Wiese said, referencing a January game in which Weisner scored 14 points in the fourth quarter of a 58-50 win. "With her, it's like you can believe anything is possible, when you have her on your team. So to see the way that she competes and she forgets about her weaknesses as a player, she makes them into strengths when it's time to compete."
Shot selection helped turned Weisner from a very good player into someone who deserves to be an All-American. Early in her Oregon State days, playing for teams not far removed from the assemblage of walk-ons and spare parts coach Scott Rueck inherited when he took over a program in free fall, she had to shoot early and often. Late in the regional final against Baylor, as the 3-point shots that propelled the team to the lead in the first half dried up, Weisner took over. They weren't always high-percentage shots. But they were shots she could get -- and make.
"She's gotten a lot smarter in the area of what's a good shot for her," assistant coach Mandy Close said. "And in the flow of our game and the flow of our team, what we need at a certain point in the game. She's really grown in that area. Now it's gotten to a point where sometimes we're like, 'Jamie, you've got to be a little bit more aggressive' in taking wide-open looks that she gets. And that could be early in the shot clock. Any open look for her is a good look for us."
Open looks are what Wiese likes to get for other people. Six times this season the junior had as many or more assists as field goal attempts. Nearly two out of every three shots she did take came from the 3-point line. She'll need to hit some of those, to be sure, but she also has the handle, size and quickness to get inside the arc and make shots.
"It's important for me to be aggressive and be a threat every time that I'm on the floor because I think that opens it up for other people," Wiese said. "So if I look like I'm going to shoot or I'm going to attack, then maybe the defense will collapse on me and I'll be able to kick it out. It will keep everybody on their toes, and it will create a lot more opportunities for everybody else."
It can't be just offense. The nation's best defensive team by opponent's field-goal percentage, three spots ahead of Connecticut, Oregon State must find a way to slow Connecticut's transition. It helps that they don't have to sacrifice defense to keep their dynamic scorers on the court.
"There would be times, both of them, when they were younger, that they just didn't do basic shell drills. They didn't move when the ball moved," assistant coach Eric Ely said. "They would lose sight of their players and that type of thing. But now that's rare. It's rare that they lose sight of players when players cut. It's rare that they'll be in the wrong spot. That's just the progression of maturity and understanding defense."
It will take something special for Oregon State or anyone else to beat Connecticut. But it may not take something we haven't seen before.