Baylor’s legs finally gave out on them.
Playing their fourth game in four days after four weeks of what was essentially win-or-go-to-the-NIT-again basketball, you could also see the Bears tire down the stretch of their 74-65 loss to Iowa State in the finals of the Big 12 tournament.
After forcing the Cyclones to miss their first 13 shots of the game and taking a double-digit lead early in the first half, Baylor’s defense became a sieve, allowing the Cyclones to shoot 68.6% from the floor the rest of the way. It goes without saying that, for a team with some issues on the defensive end of the floor already, this was not one of their premier performances.
But that also doesn’t change the fact that Baylor has been playing some of the best basketball in the country over the last four weeks.
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Remember, this was a team that was 2-8 in the Big 12 heading into a February 12th game at TCU. They had lost eight of their last ten games and were on the wrong side of the bubble, but that win over TCU sparked a run. Baylor won seven of eight to close the regular season before knocking off TCU, Oklahoma and Texas en route to the Big 12 title game.
What has changed?
Well, for starters, Kenny Chery has played like one of the best point guards in the country ever since he snapped a three-game funk with a triple-double in the double-overtime win at Kansas State exactly one month ago. Brady Heslip refound his three-point stroke. Jefferson and Austin are finally playing like everyone expected them to play four months ago.
In other words, this group finally decided to play up to their potential.
And as a result, there is a chance that they could end up getting a No. 5 seed when the brackets are released.
The early portion of Big 12 didn’t go well for the Baylor Bears, to say the least. At one point Scott Drew’s team lost five straight and seven of eight Big 12 contests, going from a team some thought to be a contender for the league title to one that looked destined to simply sit above TCU in the standings.
But there’s something to be said for a team that gets hot at the right time, and it’s clear that Baylor fits that description. The Bears have now won six in a a row and ten of their last 11 after whipping Texas 86-69 in a Big 12 semifinal Friday night. Brady Heslip shot 6-for-11 from beyond the arc and scored 24 points, leading four Bears in double figures.
As a team Baylor shot 12-for-24 from deep and 24-for-30 from the foul line, outscoring the Longhorns by 21 points from deep and 22 points from the charity stripe. And with their starting front court outplaying the Texas big men, Baylor led by 15 at the intermission and by as much as 24 in the second half.
Cory Jefferson racked up 20 points, 13 rebounds and three blocks, with both Isaiah Austin (ten points, five rebounds and seven blocks) and Royce O’Neale (eight points, ten rebounds) chipping in.
Another key for Baylor during this run has been the play of point guard Kenny Chery. Chery, the replacement for Pierre Jackson, has averaged 13.7 points, 3.6 rebounds and 5.8 assists during this 11-game stretch with all three averages being higher than his season averages.
One reason for Baylor’s struggles early in conference play was the strength of the Big 12, and when a team isn’t playing well in a conference that difficult issues have the potential to snowball. But instead of getting frustrated and splintering off, thus allowing the season to get away from them, Baylor tightened things up and continued to work. They’ve turned things around as a result, and now Baylor has the look of a team capable of winning multiple games next week.
For the second consecutive night the Baylor Bears got off to a good start at the Big 12 tournament, and they earned a spot in Friday’s Big 12 semifinals as a result. Baylor shot 54.8% from the field and 6-for-10 from beyond the arc in the first half, scoring 47 points on their way to a 78-73 win over two-seed Oklahoma.
Scott Drew’s Bears scored 18 of its 47 points in the paint, and they also converted six Oklahoma turnovers into 12 points. All five starters finished the game in double figures with Isaiah Austin scoring 18 points to lead the way. Cory Jefferson added a 14-point, 11-rebound double-double and Kenny Chery finished the game with 14 points and seven assists.
In some regards the victory was a mirror image of Baylor’s 76-68 win over TCU on Wednesday, with the Bears taking advantage of their ability to score in the paint to establish a solid working margin. Against TCU the Bears scored 18 of their 39 first-half points in the paint, leading by 12 at the intermission as a result.
On Thursday the Bears would lead by as much as 21 early in the second half before the Sooners mounted a rally, cutting the deficit to five points with 2:34 remaining. Baylor would shoot 9-for-12 from the foul line over the final 2:07 to hold on for the win, and they’ll play either West Virginia or Texas on Friday.
It wasn’t long ago that many questioned whether or not Baylor would reach the NCAA tournament. But this is a talented group that’s playing well at the right time. And that could that make the Bears a dangerous draw when the brackets are announced on Sunday.