The Oregon State Beaver faithful in Corvallis have been waiting decades for a moment like Friday’s upset victory.
Let’s start this off with the mother of all “full disclosures,” OK? I am from Corvallis and the Beavers were the first college sports team I ever learned to love. So, this piece — this moment — is personal. For the first time in my life, I get to write about an Oregon State win in the NCAA Tournament.
Rewind the clock back to the mid-1990s. I am in grade school at Adams Elementary in Corvallis, and my parents have finally come to the point where they need something to do with us kids on the weeknights. So, we start buying the cheap GA tickets to Oregon State basketball.
Now, at this time, Beavers basketball was something of a paradox. OSU had very recently produced high-level pros like Gary Payton and Brent Barry, but the program was in a quick decline following the retirement of Ralph Miller in 1989. Miller’s longtime first mate and eventual successor, Jim Anderson, was unable to replicate the success of the Orange Express that made the postseason in all but one year during the 1980s. (Note: Those appearances would later be vacated due to NCAA sanctions.)
Instead of perennial postseason entrant, the Beavers men’s basketball program that I grew up with was a lovable loser. My first real exposure to Oregon State basketball came during the Eddie Payne days, starting in the 1995-96 season. The Beavers went 6-21 that season. It was really the perfect opening salvo to what it would mean to “bleed Orange” during the next 20 years.
Payne eventually limped to 52-88 record at Oregon State, only to be followed by further mediocrity. After he was let go by former OSU and current Kentucky athletic director Mitch Barnhart, the university hired a slew of coaches who couldn’t get OSU over the hump and back into the NCAA Tournament. That list of coaches includes current Liberty head coach Ritchie McKay, former Lute Olson assistant Jay John, and Craig Robinson, who is currently Director of the National Association of Basketball Coaches (and yes, Michelle Obama’s brother).
But it wasn’t until the most recent hire, former Montana head coach Wayne Tinkle, that things started to really turn around in Corvallis.
Family connections are a massive recruiting asset, and the stars aligned just right to bring three separate families together in the heart of the Willamette Valley. Wayne Tinkle brought along his talented son Tres, who would go on to become OSU’s all-time leading scorer. Assistant coach Stephen Thompson Sr. convinced his son Stevie to join ranks (and younger brother Ethan would soon follow). And perhaps most importantly, program legend Gary Payton was able to cheer on his son, Gary Payton II, from the sidelines at his alma mater.
When OSU put all of that together in 2016, the result was the Beavers’ first NCAA Tournament team in more than 25 years.
But the party was short-lived, as the Beavers ended up as a slightly overseeded No. 7, and they were pitted up against a dangerous No. 10 seed VCU and their new head coach, Will Wade. The results weren’t pretty, and the bold of spirit are free to find the gory details on their own. Suffice it to say, the Beavers did not move on.
With Tres sidelined due to injury, the following season was an abject disaster, with the Beavers amassing just one Pac-12 win all year long. And though the program slowly clawed its way back to respectability, Wayne and Tres were never able to recapture the magic together.
One year later, there’s more magic than anyone could have ever expected.
Following the loss of top players Tinkle and Kylor Kelley, the Beavers were picked to finish 12th in the Pac-12 preseason poll. Privately, I wondered to myself just how this team would compete. But if there’s one thing that you can count on from a Wayne Tinkle-led team, it’s grit. This team has it in spades. Throughout the season, the team continually ground out unexpected results — just ask Oregon, USC, and Colorado — and defied all the odds to finish as the No. 5 seed in the Pac-12 tournament.
And it is that grit that took the league by surprise during the last week, as the Beavers beat three NCAA Tournament teams on their way to their first-ever Pac-12 Tournament win and an automatic bid to the Big Dance.
As a reminder, this is just the second time in my life as an Oregon State fan that the Beavers have played in March Madness. And the same grit that got them there is what just helped OSU knock off a No. 5-seeded Tennessee team that many had penciled into their preseason Final Four.
Now, how did it happen? Well, it cannot be understated just how important Nicholls State transfer Warith Alatishe has been for Oregon State. The forward does seemingly everything well, but his main skill comes in the rebounding department. If he is in the vicinity of a missed shot, it’s a good bet that he will be in the mix for the rebound.
Add in some veteran leadership and sharp shooting from Ethan Thompson — who has started every game for OSU since his freshman season — and Zach Reichle, plus development from young players like Jarod Lucas, Gianni Hunt, and Rodrigue Andela, and suddenly you are looking at a pretty complete team. That doesn’t even mention guys like Maurice Calloo, the Oklahoma State transfer who scored 15 in the Pac-12 title game, or Roman Silva, whose career-high 16 points propelled the Beavers to victory on Friday.
And now, for the first time in a long time, we — the royal ‘we‘ of Beaver Nation, that is — wait. Oregon State will face the winner of Oklahoma State and Liberty in the second round of the 2021 NCAA Tournament for a chance to play in the Sweet Sixteen.
Now, if you’ll excuse me, I’m going to go pinch myself.
Header image courtesy of Joe Robbins/NCAA Photos via Getty Images.