KNOXVILLE, Tenn. -- After losing in the first round of the NCAA tournament, Western Kentucky coach Michelle Clark-Heard ran through a list of skills that make Oregon State center Marie Gülich one of the best players in women's college basketball. Heard-Clark, who also works with USA Basketball and its talent pool, talked about the size, mobility and touch that make the 6-foot-5 Gülich an All-American now and a professional prospect in a few weeks.
But it was Western Kentucky's Ivy Brown, the Conference USA defensive player of the year, who best summed up what sets Gülich apart from most of her peers. Summed it up both in the words she spoke and the weary voice she delivered them after guarding Gülich for 40 minutes.
"She works hard, she never stops posting," Brown said. "You see a lot of post players, once you start guarding them for three or four seconds, they kind of give up. But she never stopped working."
It is the single biggest reason why Oregon State is in the Sweet 16 as a No. 6 seed, with Gülich taking on Baylor's 6-foot-7 Kalani Brown after helping eliminate third-seeded Tennessee and 6-foot-6 Mercedes Russell. It also explains why the Oregon State program, a decade removed from oblivion, is in the Sweet 16 for the third season in a row despite a roster that includes almost no holdovers from the first of those teams.
Because to understand the effect Gülich has on Oregon State now is to understand the effect former Beavers star Ruth Hamblin had on Gülich. It's that connective tissue that turns a season of success into a successful program.
Some of the changes that comes with living in a foreign country are obvious: a new language to speak, a new currency to count or new maps to navigate. A person can prepare for those. Yet what often stands out most are the small things, the daily interactions and customs that make it clear you are no longer amidst the familiar. For Gülich in the weeks and months that followed a move from her home in Germany to Corvallis, Oregon, four years ago, one such lesson came in the checkout line at the grocery store. She would put her items on the counter, and the clerks would ask how she was doing, the question maybe even accompanied by a smile. (This was, after all, mellow Oregon.)
And Gülich would stare, her equilibrium momentarily jolted. Not only was it not how similar interactions went in Germany, it quickly became clear that it was something of a charade. Well intentioned and meant to be friendly, of course, but never a question in search of an answer.
If you stop and think about the inefficiency of the routine, it's a rather strange bit of theater.
"You would never say, 'Oh, I had a horrible day.'" Gülich said. "You would be like, 'Oh yeah, I'm good.' In Germany it's super different. You don't stand at the cashier in the supermarket and they ask you how you're doing. They do their job, I do my job, and I say, 'Bye, thank you.' That's it."
With time, she got used to it and probably a hundred other equally small changes. That's how it works. You adjust or you are made miserable. Just as she adjusted to the slightly less friendly greetings Ruth Hamblin offered every time Gülich tried to post up in practice that first season in 2014-15.
A 6-foot-6 old-school center raised on a Canadian farm and with the strength to show for it, Hamblin tested anything Gülich thought she knew about playing the post. And if Gülich ever thought about telling those clerks she was having a horrible day, the toll of banging against Hamblin on the basketball court might have been the reason. Hamblin wasn't trying to be tough on the freshman, was indeed a mentor to the newcomer. It's just that few players ever invested more of themselves in every moment on the court. And at 6-6, that's a sizable investment.
Given Gülich's international background and Hamblin's more conventional path, the two were the same age despite two years of difference in class. Between that parity and her own excitement at having someone so close in size and skill to measure herself against in practice, Hamblin didn't view it as a mentor-student relationship, more one of equals.
One of whom just happened to get the better of the other for quite a few months.
"In practice we could tell a lot of times she was frustrated," said Hamblin, currently preparing to play for Canada in the Commonwealth Games. "I think I blocked her shot quite a few times. Obviously there were times you could tell she didn't know what to do, but I think she always responded in the right way and kept going. And we're seeing the effects of that in what she's doing this year and just the way she's kept going through the challenges and risen above them."
Gülich was a college-ready face-up offensive player when she arrived in the United States, but she didn't have a back-to-the-basket offensive game and, according to Oregon State coach Scott Rueck, didn't know a thing about playing defense at that level.
"I knew I made the right choice," Gülich said of her first few months in Corvallis. "It just took me awhile to adjust to the American way of playing basketball. And there was the language barrier, and I was away from home. It just took me awhile to adjust to everything.
"And obviously I had Ruth against me every day, and maybe a little bit of doubt creeped in, basketball-wise. But I think overall it just made me stronger as a person."
That which does not kill us, as the old saying begins.
"When she mentioned questioning her basketball, that was because she came in having been highly successful internationally and with her club," Rueck said. "And then she comes over here and gets dominated by Ruth. She didn't get a shot off against Ruth, day after day. That will make you doubt yourself. For us, you get on the floor if you defend. Well, it's hard to get minutes from Ruth Hamblin, so she didn't play very much that freshman year."
Only three players on the current Oregon State roster ever played alongside Hamblin or former All-American guard Jamie Weisner, the cornerstones of the turnaround. Only Gülich remembers what it is like for a season to end earlier than the Sweet 16. She was that little-used freshman when Oregon State lost at home against Gonzaga in the second round, a game that Rueck nonetheless points to as a turning point for Gülich because of the way she got the best defensively of Gonzaga standout Sunny Greinacher, a fellow German. All those hours with Hamblin paid off.
So while only two others played with Hamblin, all of those currently wearing Oregon State uniforms learn from her every time they follow Gülich's lead.
After the win against Tennessee this past weekend, former Oregon State All-American Sydney Wiese tweeted her amusement at the doubts at how the Beavers would fare this season or this tournament, adding "It's not exceeding expectations -- it's what the program is."
There is something to that. Three years from now, perhaps it will be Taya Corosdale, a freshman now, showing a new class what is expected, using the lessons from this year's lone senior.
"She has the weight of the world on her shoulders, pretty much," Oregon State sophomore Kat Tudor said of Gülich. "It's just cool to see how she's developed into this role and got us to where we are now. She has a whole bunch of underclassmen that she's in charge of, and it's just awesome to see how she's rounded us up and brought us here."
The weight of the world on your shoulders is nothing compared to Hamblin's forearm in your back.
It's funny how easily new becomes familiar. When she goes home to Germany now, it can take several days for Gülich to fight off the urge to speak English instead of German every time she opens her mouth. And there are times at home that she'll reach the supermarket checkout, put her items in front of the clerk and, without thinking about it, ask how the person is doing.
"They get a little irritated," Gülich said. "But at the end of the day, they think it's nice, fine. It just throws them off."
She can't help it. If you spend enough time in a place, it becomes a part of you.