KANSAS CITY, Mo. -- Three games. Three swings. One huge home run.
No. 12 Baylor made the most of its final chance to take down No. 3 Kansas in a Big 12 setting Friday night in the Sprint Center. The Bears reached tonight's finals of the Big 12 tournament by knocking off the top-seeded Jayhawks 81-72 and breaking the hearts of countless local fans anticipating one final Kansas-Missouri basketball showdown before the Tigers head to the Southeastern Conference.
In marked contrast to the teams' regular-season meetings, the Bears dictated play with their backcourt -- Baylor had almost twice as many assists (16) as turnovers (9) -- and the frontcourt held strong underneath, breaking even in the battle of the boards, 37-37.
By capitalizing on an opportunity to improve its seeding for next week's NCAA Tournament, Baylor put itself in position to become the first Texas school to win a Big 12 men's basketball tournament. But forward Quincy Acy enjoyed being part of the team that silenced a week's worth of local chatter about an inevitable rematch between No. 3 Kansas and No. 5 Missouri in the tournament finals.
"You never want to get disrespected," Acy said. "So we came in with an ax to grind and with the mindset to win every game."
Baylor guard Brady Heslip, who hit two pivotal 3-point shots in the final 2:06 to keep Kansas at bay, cited a different approach for this team than during the regular season, when the Bears (27-6) lost six conference games and finished 0-4 against Kansas (27-6) and Missouri (29-4).
"We came here to earn respect. We had a mindset coming into this tournament that we were going to do something different," Heslip said. "We've been in those situations before where other teams hit us at the end and we've got to hit back."
Baylor hit back with a vengeance Friday after dropping both regular-season meetings to Kansas by double-digit margins.
This time, there was a Perry Jones III impact (18 points, 7 rebounds) that lasted for a full 40 minutes. There were six players who scored in double figures.
Most important, there were continued strides made in Baylor's three-guard offense, which has been yielding late-season dividends since coach Scott Drew began leaning on it heavily during a 77-72 victory at Texas on Feb. 20. Friday's matchup marked the first time Baylor played the brunt of a game against Kansas in its three-guard set.
For the second consecutive time in the Big 12 tournament, the Bears' three primary guards -- Heslip, Pierre Jackson and A.J. Walton -- all played 30-plus minutes and scored in double figures. The primary benefactor has been Walton, the Bears' best on-the-ball defender, who has been making the most of his extended playing time.
Walton had 12 points against Kansas one night after scoring 11 in the Bears' 82-74 victory over Kansas State. Those are two of his four double-figure scoring totals this season.
"Everyone knows A.J.'s a great defender. But he can also score the ball. He's showing that," said Jackson, who supplanted Walton as the team's starting point guard on Jan. 21 against Missouri. "Having him out there, I think it's a plus. We just spread the whole offense out ... and it helps on defense, too."
Baylor will need more of that in the NCAA Tournament, where good guard play equates to lengthy tournament runs. Walton said he's ready to deliver.
"All three guards are different and bring different things to the table," Walton said. "Pierre, with his explosiveness, he can get anywhere on the court he wants. Brady, you can't leave him alone. He's a shooter ... And I can step in and hit the midrange shots. Once all of us are flowing and we have our bigs flowing as well, it's good."
It flowed well enough Saturday that the Bears produced 81 points despite shooting only 40 percent from the field. But the biggest edge is on defense, where Baylor gets more quickness on the court.
That bedeviled Kansas State, another NCAA-team-to-be, in Thursday's matchup. Wildcats coach Frank Martin said the Bears' three-guard defensive approach "really caused major problems for us running our offense."
Kansas struggled Friday, shooting only 42.6 percent from the field after hitting 57.4 percent and 51.1 percent, respectively, during each of the team's double-digit victories over Baylor in the regular season. Drew said the team's success in the three-guard set shows the Bears' versatility.
"That's been the strength of our team all year long," Drew said. "But our execution the last two games has been much better."
Good enough for Baylor and its three-guard set to be a win away from a Big 12 Tournament title.
Jimmy Burch, 817-390-7760