MISSOULA — It's the number the Oregon State Beavers just can't seem to shed: 12.
It's where the Beavers were picked to finish in the Pac-12 Conference in the preseason media poll. And on Friday, the Beavers again will wear the No. 12, but one that's not so negative.
Oregon State -- coached by former Montana Griz coach and player Wayne Tinkle -- provided the classic Cinderella run college basketball fans are accustomed to in March over the past weekend. After being picked to finish dead-last in the conference, the Beavers topped Colorado 70-68 in the Pac-12 tournament championship game to punch their ticket to the NCAA Tournament. The tournament championship was a first in program history, and it put the finishing touches on OSU's journey to prove everyone wrong.
"I remember folding my hands in prayer and looking up right away," Tinkle told MTN Sports. "(Director of basketball operations) Joey Petschl who was with me at Montana, has been with me for 11 years. Out of the corner of my eye, he’s making a bee-line, leaves his feet to do a flying chest bump. Kinda caught me off guard but that was cool and then looking up to the family in the stands."
After ditching one No. 12, they donned another Sunday afternoon when Oregon State (17-12) was selected as the No. 12 seed in the Midwest Region. They will take on No. 5 Tennessee (18-8) in the opening round on Friday at 2:30 p.m. at Bankers Life Fieldhouse in Indianapolis.
"I'm not overly superstitious, but it was funny," Tinkle said of the seeding.
Tinkle said last year the Beavers felt a similar buzz and focus around tournament time that his team possessed again over the weekend. In 2020, OSU beat Utah on a buzzer-beater in the first round of the conference tournament and were due to play rival Oregon in the quarterfinal round, but the tournament, along with the rest of the sporting world, was eventually shut down due to the beginning of the COVID-19 pandemic.
This year, Oregon State went through ups and downs all season, notably a 34-point loss to Arizona on Jan. 14. The Beavers bounced back with three straight wins after that, and went into the tournament winners of three of their final four regular-season games.
The one loss was to Oregon, who the Beavers exacted revenge against in the semifinal round after topping UCLA in the quarterfinals. But heading into the championship against Colorado -- a team that beat OSU twice this season -- emotions were high for a variety of reasons.
"I broke down earlier in the day when I was in my room by myself thinking about my family and how blessed I am and all that we’ve been through," Tinkle said. "Then I saw Tres (Tinkle) and I was thinking how much he missed out on on what we're enjoying. His freshman year when he got hurt at the end of the season, last year when we felt like we were about to make the same run then the season's shut down. So looking up there and seeing him pounding his chest and wearing a jersey was pretty cool. And then obviously going nuts with the confetti, hugging everyone on the court. All of the 'love yous' and 'run through a brick wall for you anytime coach' just kind of hits all that you'd been through.
"When you buy in, when you get on page, when you put the team before anything individual you can accomplish great things and it obviously culminated in that moment."
They even continued a tradition started at Montana where if Oregon State wins on the road, they play "Ain't No Mountain High Enough" in the locker room. For Tinkle, who has endured his fair share of criticism over the last few years about his job at OSU, it was a moment of validation as the program silenced the naysayers.
It's Tinkle's fifth time as a head coach going to the tournament, and second with Oregon State. But even seven years removed from leading the Grizzlies program, Tinkle still received plenty of support from the Treasure State.
"Probably got an equal amount of congrats from the Griz faithful and Griz fans all around the country as Oregon State fans," Tinkle said. "It’s really cool when the people that supported you for all those great years at Montana are still following and rooting for us. That’s pretty dang cool."
The celebration was ultimately short-lived as their attention turned toward the NCAA Tournament. Players and staff briefly thanked their families for attending the tournament championship, another challenge Tinkle said occurred because they couldn't spend more time with them but also didn't want to jeopardize their spot in the tournament with the health and safety protocols. After winning the championship, Oregon State was tested early Sunday morning and left for Indianapolis. According to Tinkle, the "bubble" the NCAA set up for the tournament began on the flight to Indianapolis.
Once they arrived, the team had a police escort take them to the hotel and the team watched the selection show from a ballroom designated for the team. Once they checked into their rooms, they had to quarantine for 24 hours before taking another test. They held their first shoot-around and practice on Monday and another on Tuesday.
The Beavers will get a chance to spend 45 minutes on Thursday in Bankers Life Fieldhouse, home to the Indiana Pacers. They'll get a feel for the new arena followed by Friday's tip-off.
"It was a great season, trying and very emotional. The most emotional by far," Tinkle said, referencing his team's work throughout the pandemic as well as being one of many college basketball programs using their voices for social justice issues. "We’re happy to be here. You know it was nice to see our name flash up there. Tennessee’s a very, very tough team, but we’re going to put a plan in place. I know our guys are riding a pretty good wave of confidence right now and we’ll hope to give it our best shot."