Baylor’s up-and-down season in quest of an at-large berth in the NCAA Tournament took a big step in the right direction Tuesday in the Ferrell Center.
The Bears upset No. 16 Iowa State 74-61 to enhance their attractiveness to members of the NCAA selection committee in the team’s final home game of the regular season.
Baylor (20-10, 8-9 Big 12) can reach the break-even mark in league play, typically a good sign for at-large invitees from power conferences, with a victory at Kansas State in Saturday’s regular-season finale. But coach Scott Drew made it clear he considers the Bears’ ticket to the NCAA Tournament already punched, based on eight conference wins in a league that holds the nation’s highest RPI ranking.
“Absolutely. No question,” Drew said. “You can’t hold losses against Top 25 teams in the top conference in the country [against us] … I’ve always said eight wins gets you into the NCAA Tournament based on prior history of studying stuff.”
The Bears’ biggest asset, said Drew, is that Tuesday’s triumph over ISU (22-7, 10-7) gave Baylor its seventh victory of the season against a team ranked in the nation’s Top 50 in RPI.
“No one’s ever been left out with seven Top 50 wins. So that’s a given,” said Drew, confidently assessing the Bears’ NCAA hopes. “You’ve got to be thankful for the league’s strength and playing in a great league.”
During the final 2:21, Baylor fans also were thankful for a 13-0 run by the Bears to close out the game. Guard Brady Heslip’s 3-point shot in transition started the surge, breaking a 61-61 tie. Point guard Kenny Chery (16 points, game-high six assists) drove home the dagger, scoring eight of the team’s final 10 points and capping the game with a thunderous dunk with four seconds remaining.
It marked Baylor’s sixth win in seven games after starting conference play with a 2-8 break from the gate. And it could not have come at a better time for forward Cory Jefferson, a fifth-year senior who contributed a game-high 21 points and seven rebounds in his final appearance at the Ferrell Center.
“You want to win the final night playing in your home gym. And we’re still fighting to get to the Big Dance,” Jefferson said. “This is easily a big-time win for us. We had a lot of things to inspire us.”
Jefferson joined center Isaiah Austin, an Arlington Grace Prep graduate, in controlling the paint and the boards while limiting two of ISU’s three double-digit scorers, forwards Georges Niang and Melvin Ejim, to a combined 10 points on 5-of-25 shooting.
Ejim, the Big 12’s leading scorer (18.9 ppg), connected on just 3-of-14 shots (0-of-5 from behind the arc) in 36 minutes against Baylor. Iowa State, which ranked seventh nationally in scoring (83.2 avg.), failed to crack the 70-point mark for the first time this season.
After a 3-point basket by Cyclones guard DeAndre Kane (team-high 20 points), ISU did not score in the final 4:10 as Baylor seized control. And, in Drew’s estimation, an NCAA at-large berth to be awarded later.
Jerry Palm, CBSSports.com bracketologist, apparently agrees with Drew. He listed Baylor as a No. 9 seed in his projected bracket released after Tuesday’s triumph.
Heslip, who scored 15 of his 18 points from behind the arc, said Baylor’s 13-0 closing surge occurred because a desperate team fighting for its NCAA future “left the egos aside and left everything they had out there … That was the difference in the last three minutes.”
For a team that has been riding the NCAA bubble for the past six weeks, that three-minute surge might have been a season-changer. Drew insists it will be. After the game, he grabbed a microphone, shouted “How ’bout them Bears!” and thanked fans for believing in his team when it was going through its midseason struggles.
“Obviously, there was frustration and disappointment,” Drew said. “But the guys stuck together. There was no finger-pointing. For any coach, senior night always means a lot. But when you’re on the bubble, fighting for a chance to go to the NCAA Tournament, it means even more. I think you’ve seen that from us … the last few weeks.”
Baylor showed enough Tuesday, in Drew’s estimation, to make those NCAA dreams come true.