INDIANAPOLIS — The shot clock hit zero. The horn buzzed. And the Baylor Bears, it seemed, were doomed from the very start.
Victims of Houston’s insufferable defense on the first possession of the game— they couldn’t get a shot off—it could only go up from here.
It went up.
Way, way up.
The Bears were never left holding the ball at that buzzer again, aside from the last second, as the final horn screamed over Lucas Oil Stadium to signal their 78–59 victory over No. 2 seed Houston and their entrance into the men’s national championship game for the first time since 1948.
The nation’s best three-point shooting team hit its first three treys, was at one point 7 of 13 from beyond the arc and finished with 12 of its favorite kind of buckets. The Bears were marksmen from long range, midrange and short range, making 53 % of their shots in a sizzling showing that should at least scare the tournament’s overall No. 1 seed and favorite to win it all, Gonzaga.
At least one guy is afraid.
“That team right there scares me,” said TBS analyst Charles Barkley.
This, should the Bulldogs beat UCLA on Saturday night, could be a dream matchup. Thought to be the No. 1 and No. 2 teams in the national all season long, Baylor and Gonzaga were scheduled to play in December before a COVID-19 positive canceled the game. The two coaches, Scott Drew of Baylor and Gonzaga’s Mark Few, held a news conference after the game cancellation and then rode back to the hotel with one another.
“Coach Few and I joked when the game got canceled, ‘If we end up playing this in the Final Four, that sounds like a better idea,’” Drew recalls.
In a meeting of arguably the nation’s best defense (Houston) and arguably the nation’s best offense (Baylor), the scorers prevailed.
It didn’t seem to matter who attempted shots. They went in, one after another. A Jared Butler pull-up 17 footer. A Davion Mitchell long-range bomb. A Flo Thamba putback hook shot. Swish. Swish. Swish.
They did much of it without the team’s second-leading scorer. MaCio Teague, averaging 16 points a game, had just one point with 15 minutes left in the second half. In fact, this appears to be Baylor’s approach.
Drew’s squad can get points from anyone anytime anywhere. In four of the five NCAA tournament games, a different Baylor player has led the team in scoring: Teague against Hartford and Arkansas; Matthew Mayer, a bench player, against Wisconsin; and Adam Flagler, a transfer, vs. Villanova.
“That’s what we’ve done all year long—feed the hot hand and share the ball,” Drew says.
Against Houston it was Butler, a junior from Louisiana who started the game by blocking a shot, snaring an offensive rebound, stealing a pass and sinking his first two threes. Butler had 17 points, all of them in the second half. He and Drew were the last Bears left on the floor, embracing one another to end a COVID-kind of celebration—restrained and, at times, masked. More than 2,000 Bears fans roared from the socially-distant seating here in this goliath football stadium.
“B-U! B-U! B-U” they chanted.
In his 18th season in Waco, the 50-year-old Drew has the Bears (27–2) the farthest the program’s been since a loss to Kentucky and Adolf Rupp in the ’48 championship game. In their first trip to the men’s Final Four in 71 years, they cruised past a Cougars team that took a somewhat historical route here, becoming the first team to reach the national semifinals by beating four double-digit seeds.
Baylor is no No. 11 seed. And, boy, did it show it.
The Bears closed the first half on an 18–3 run over the final six minutes for a 25-point lead at the break, kept at least a 16-point cushion the rest of the way and gave the Big 12 a spot in the finals for a second straight year after it went six years without one.
“The ball went in,” Butler explains in the simplest of ways.
Drew’s offense was quite stupendous. The Bears made their first five shots of the game after the initial shot clock violation. A 13–8 lead quickly went to 22–11 and then 38–17. Houston’s bugaboo all year, consistent offense, cropped up again. At one point, UH guard Marcus Sasser had 15 of the team’s 17 points, and everyone else was 1 for 11 from the floor.
And so into Monday’s championship matchup they go, powered by stellar shooting and two sizable weapons down low in 250 pounders Jonathan Tchamwa Tchatchoua and Mark Vital. This Baylor team is fun. Sure, it can bury you from deep, but while nursing a big lead, like a football team milking the fourth quarter, it ran the ball, tossing it inside to the big men for some easy buckets.
Finally, it seems like the Bears are playing like the team in December and January that started the season 18–0. A three-week virus-triggered pause, from Feb. 2–Feb. 23, had them looking sluggish upon their return.
Maybe they’re finally rounding into form again?
“If we’re not where we were, I can’t see the difference,” Drew said.
The game clock hit zero. The horn buzzed. And the Baylor Bears, for certain, were marching into the title game.