CORVALLIS – I heard there were miracles being performed in Corvallis, so on Sunday I went back to my hometown, back to my alma mater, and attended an Oregon State basketball game for the first time in 23 years.

And sure enough, I saw the miracle with my own eyes.

The Beavers won.

They were outsized. Outnumbered. And overmatched athletically. But they handled Washington 64-50 in front of 9,114 other believers.

Oregon State, a team picked to finish last in the Pac-12, and a team that played two of its seven walkons, is now in third place in the Pac-12 (16-7 overall, 7-4 in Pac-12).

So what in the name of Ralph Miller is going on at Gill?

“Just following Big Fella,” guard Gary Payton II said.

Big Fella, of course, is first year coach Wayne Tinkle, who is doing more with less than probably any other coach in the country.

Washington has future NBA players in big man Shawn Kemp Jr. and guard Nigel Williams-Goss. Oregon State has a future engineer in Dylan Livesay, a freshman from Wilsonville who played in the first half after showing up to Tinkle’s October call-to-arms tryout for the student body.

Five of the 22 students who tried out ended up on Oregon State’s roster. They joined two other walkon holdovers.

Those walk-ons filled out a team that lost its top five starters. No one returning averaged more than 4.0 points a game. One of the best incoming recruits, Chai Baker, can’t play because of a heart condition that nearly cost him his life. And one of the best returning players, Victor Robbins, will probably be kicked off in the next 24 hours after being cited for DUI early Sunday morning. He was already serving a 10-game suspension for violation of university policy.

Yet amid all this adversity, amid all these obstacles, there was the Big Fella on Sunday, striding back and forth in front of the student section, applauding them and lauding them with “Way to Go! Way to Go!”

The Beavers, you see, are 14-0 at Gill for the first time. Not since Jimmy Anderson. Not since Ralph Miller. Not since Paul Valenti. Not since Slats Gill.

E-V-E-R.

It’s why Anderson, the coach who last won a conference championship and last took the Beavers to the NCAA Tournament, said this week that what Tinkle is doing here is “a miracle.”

Not only Tinkle winning, he is winning with, ahem … this.

With apologies to Payton, who is a top-shelf talent, and guard Malcolm Duvivier, a guard who is more determined than deft, the Beavers are not very good. In fact, it might be the most unsightly 16-win team in the nation.

They slow the tempo to preserve the energy of its limited roster, where six players typically get most of the playing time. And they have a devil of a time scoring, with no real outside shooters and big men who play like they are wearing oven mitts.

But man, does this team play defense. And wow, do they play hard.

Those two elements, Payton and Duvivier say, were implemented the first day Tinkle took over for Craig Robinson.

“Coach told us to come with our lunch pails and our hard hats and work everyday,” Duvivier said.

On Sunday, Washington looked like an irritated picnic guest, swatting away flies. Eventually, they might as well have rustled a bees nest they way OSU was swarming. OSU forced a shot clock violation, and two other desperation shots to beat the clock. And Washington became so panicked under the pressure the patrons in the front rows were protecting themselves from errant passes as much as they were watching the game.

When Payton corked a fast-break layin attempt with two hands, the crowd rose to its feet in appreciation. Just like the players, they know that defense is the way this team will win.

But when Payton took an outlet pass from Jarmal Reid and zipped to the basket for a dunk, giving the Beavers a 51-40 lead, this old building really woke up. It was the biggest crowd of the season, and largest in two years, and I swear some cobwebs floated down from the rafters, jarred loose from years of inactivity.

It reminded me of earlier in the week, when I stopped in to watch the Beavers practice. There was Anderson, courtside, soaking it all in. He watched Tinkle bark and moan and encourage, and soon, he turned to me with a twinkle in his eye.

“Remember,” he said as a smile came across his face, “when they used to pitch tents and line up for games here?”

I did.

And I remember my first game at Gill in 1981. It was three days before my 11th birthday. My dad and I sat in the front row of the end zone bleachers as Oregon State, ranked No. 2 in the nation behind center Steve Johnson and guards Ray Blume and Mark Radford, crushed Cal. But the only thing I remember is the public address announcer.

It was late in the game and he announced a final score: Old Dominion 63, DePaul 62. DePaul, the No. 1 team in the land, had fallen.

Immediately, a deafening chant began, and I swear it lasted 10 minutes.

“WE’RE NO.1! WE’RE NO.1! WE’RE NO. 1!”

Sure enough, on my 11th birthday, the new polls came out. Oregon State was ranked No. 1 in the nation.

I don’t know if I will ever again see students camped on the ramps of Gill. And I don’t know if I will ever again hear a Gill crowd chant “We’re No. 1!”

But for the first time in 23 years, the Beavers were relevant enough to walk through those Gill doors. And for the first time in I don’t know how long, there is reason to dream, to hope, to wonder. 

People here were smiling. They were cheering. And above all, they were there.

Following the Big Fella. And cheering for the next miracle.

 —Jason Quick | [email protected]@jwquick

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