Rockne Andrew Roll is an RTC correspondent. You can also find him at @raroll. Rockne filed this report after Oregon State’s upset victory over UCLA Sunday afternoon.
A year ago, Oregon State was 1-8 in conference play and well on its way to Craig Robinson’s third losing season in five years in Corvallis. This year? UCLA’s Steve Alford summed it up rather succinctly after the Bruins’ 71-67 loss at Gill Coliseum on Sunday. His words were not intended for public consumption, but his frustration with his team’s performance gave his words such volume that they were crystal clear on the other side of the cinder block wall that separates the visiting locker room from the press room. “They’re not so bad now, are they?” Alford said of the Beavers, who are now 5-4 in Pac-12 play.
After the disappointment of last season, the impact of beating the second-place team in the conference wasn’t lost on Robinson. “I have to reiterate how big that win was to our team, our program, to our school,” he said. “It’s been 14 or 15 years since we’ve been this relevant, this late in the season. It’s not by accident.” Nor was it lost on his players, particularly his seniors, who have suffered through many a heartbreak. “We haven’t been above .500 this late in the season since I’ve been here. From a fifth-year senior standpoint, it’s absolutely massive,” said senior center Angus Brandt. “It’s what we’ve been working toward this entire time. In terms of confidence, it just solidifies in our mind that we’re a team to compete with in this conference.”
So what’s changed since last year? Quite a bit. For starters, true freshman guard Hallice Cooke has worked his way into the starting lineup alongside Roberto Nelson and Langston Morris-Walker, demonstrating his quality with a 7-of-9 shooting performance and a game-high 20 points against the Bruins. Beyond simply scoring, though, Cooke has already put himself in a position of leadership within the Beavers’ locker room. “I don’t consider him a freshman anymore,” junior forward Eric Moreland said of Cooke. “That’s the point guard, he’s our point guard now. I’m an upperclassmen, but anything he has to say, I’m going to listen. I know he knows what he’s talking about. He’s been on the big stage before and he puts in the work. He’s a leader. As a freshman, that says a lot.”