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Oregon State takes aim at unbeaten South Carolina in regional final

Mar. 30—ALBANY, N.Y. — Oregon State has grown tired of being left behind.

The Beavers were literally abandoned by their Pac-12 peers. They and Washington State will be the only two returning members of the conference next year.

Oregon State (27-7) also believes it has figuratively been left behind in the national conversation. The Beavers don't play in a big market, enjoy a long history of postseason success or send a host of brand-name stars out on the court.

All they do is play old-fashioned team-oriented basketball and — more often than not — find ways to win.

Guard Talia von Oelhoffen believes that should be enough to get America behind third-seeded Oregon State as it prepares for Sunday's Albany 1 Regional final against top-ranked and undefeated South Carolina (35-0).

"(T)his team plays so together, and we're so unselfish, and we love each other so much," von Oelhoffen said Saturday at MVP Arena. "That might not get views. That might not get clicks. That might not be a headline that pulls everyone in, but it wins games, and it's important between the lines.

"I don't know. I just think this team is so incredible and so special, and so we might not have the big names in the commercials and the TikTok stars yet. We're trying. But, no, I think that all that means is just we're America's team. We're selfless. We play together. We're a family.

"And that's a story, that's a headline that I can get behind, and I think a lot of people should, too."

The Gamecocks need make no such passionate arguments.

South Carolina has been the unanimous No. 1 team in the Associated Press poll for much of the season, and it's done so in what was expected to be something of a rebuilding year.

Coach Dawn Staley admits she did not expect to see her team enter the Elite Eight with an unblemished record before the season began.

But she's also been careful to enjoy this team on its own merits and not concern herself about its place in history — either among the program's own storied success or in the wider national picture.

"They don't want to lose, and they have uncanny way of figuring it out, player by player," Staley said. "They're not fazed by losing a 22-point lead or going down double digits. They're not fazed by it. It's unbelievable to see how they handle adverse situations all season long.

"It's more about the character of this team than just pointing out a player having a good game and meeting the moment. It's been a little bit of everybody, so it's the fabric of what they've created."

Both teams were soundly tested in Friday's regional semifinals.

Oregon State hit two late 3-pointers to erase a one-point deficit and beat second-seeded Notre Dame 70-65.

South Carolina survived a furious second-half rally by fourth-seeded Indiana — who cut a 22-point deficit down to two — before advancing with a 79-75 victory.

That game hinted at a mortality for the Gamecocks their record does not suggest.

But Beavers coach Scott Rueck isn't buying into any perceived weaknesses.

Saturday will mark the fourth time he's coached a postseason game against South Carolina since 2014, and he believes this team stacks up above any of the rest.

"The previous three times ... I remember looking at the defensive game plan and going, 'OK, we can help in off that. We can help in off that. We can provide help in the post off that,'" Rueck said. "This team, where do you help? I think that's what is separating this team in my opinion."

Rueck's been coaching at his alma mater for 14 seasons, and he's guided Oregon State to three Elite Eights. A win Sunday will send the Beavers to their second Final Four.

In the changing landscape of college sports, it's unclear what the future holds for the program. The breakup of the conference could invite schools from the remaining "power" leagues to poach Oregon State's roster.

But those are worries for another day — one in which the nation's best team is not standing immediately in the way.

"I get to coach at my school," Rueck said. "It's a dreamy situation for me, and it always has been. I like doing things that people don't think are possible. Nobody thought Oregon State could win."

The Beavers will be in a comfortable and familiar underdog role against South Carolina.

Likewise, the Gamecocks have settled into something of a routine.

South Carolina can become the 10th team to finish the season as an undefeated national champion with three more victories.

But historic implications aren't on the Gamecocks' mind. The urgency of the task at hand is motivation enough.

"We just come in the gym wanting to win and wanting to get better," South Carolina guard Te-Hina Paopao said. "We have learned a lot through our wins and knowing that we've got to do better each and every game because everyone is going to come for us.

"So we come in with the mentality like, 'Hey, we've got to win because it's that part of the season where it's win or go home.' And I know we definitely don't want to go home."