College Sports

March 13, 2014

Unpredictable Bears continue late-season roll, stun No. 17 OU

Grace Prep grad Isaiah Austin, playing to honor his late grandfather, dominates on both ends of the floor

Another night, another example of why Baylor basketball puts the madness into March every year under coach Scott Drew.

The Bears, less than 24 hours after a narrow escape against a TCU team mired in a 19-game losing streak, rebounded Thursday to upset No. 17 Oklahoma 78-73 during a second-round matchup at the Big 12 tournament.

If either result from the Sprint Center caused you to raise an eyebrow, you haven’t been tracking the wild ride that has unfolded in Waco this season.

These Bears, to borrow from Winston Churchill, are a riddle wrapped in a mystery, inside an enigma. All of it is covered in a conundrum and stuffed inside Forrest Gump’s box of chocolates.

Because with Baylor, you never know what you’re going to get. Just understand that if you plan to face this team in college basketball’s postseason, you’d better buckle your seat belt for a long, hard ride.

The Bears (23-10), left for dead by most college basketball analysts after a 2-8 start in Big 12 play, are 9-1 in their last 10 games. They logged their most impressive win in their late-season turnaround against OU (23-9), the No. 2 seed in the Big 12 tournament.

This was not a home game or a matchup against a TCU team playing out the string in a long, disappointing season. This was a wire-to-wire beating of an Oklahoma team that swept the Bears in the regular season. This happened against an OU program that carried an 18-5 record in matchups against Drew into Thursday’s contest.

And it involved all aspects of a team playing its best basketball since December as it heads into Friday’s tournament semifinal matchup against the winner of the Texas/West Virginia game. A quick roll call:

• Isaiah Austin, a 7-foot center from Arlington Grace Prep, had his most dominant night of the season on both ends of the floor. He finished with a team-high 18 points, blocked five shots and even buried a pair of 3-point shots while helping Baylor build a 47-31 halftime lead.
• Forward Cory Jefferson turned in his 13th double-double of the season (14 points, 11 rebounds), joining Austin and Royce O’Neale (12 points, 10 rebounds) in helping Baylor control the boards 36-34.
• Point guard Kenny Chery, who battled a toe injury during the Bears’ midseason slide, dished out seven assists and scored 12 points.
• The Bears, who allowed TCU to shoot a blistering 53.8 percent from the field in the second half of Wednesday’s 76-68 escape, clamped down on the Sooners’ shooters. OU, tied with Iowa State as the league’s top scoring team (82.5 avg.), made just 42.4 percent of its field-goal attempts.

A big factor was the presence of Austin, who has played with a newfound fervor after learning about the death of his grandfather before Wednesday’s game against TCU.

“I’ve just been trying to play for him. Trying to play aggressively,” Austin said. “My teammates have been pushing me hard in practice and telling me they need more out of me. I’m just trying to produce for them.”

Bears coach Scott Drew said Austin “adds a whole different dimension” to the Baylor offense when he is as assertive as he was against OU while making 8 of 12 field goals attempts, including 2 of 4 from behind the arc. Chery said an assertive Austin is an asset Baylor can ride deep into the NCAA Tournament.

“It changes the game a lot,” Chery said.

It certainly did Thursday, when Baylor looked like a team capable of wining the Big 12 tournament. A title in Kansas City could significantly boost the Bears’ NCAA seed, which is notable because few teams have been better in the postseason in recent years.

Despite all the criticism Drew receives for his perceived lack of sideline strategic skills, give the man this much: His teams are 15-3 in their last four postseason tournaments (two NCAAs, two NITs). During that stretch, Baylor won an NIT (last year), reached the finals of another (2009) and made it twice to the NCAA’s Elite Eight (2010, 2012).

This team is starting to look like the handful it was expected to be when the Bears began the season with a 12-1 nonconference record and reached No. 7 in the AP poll before backtracking. Drew said the stability provided by Chery, who tried to play through a turf toe during their midseason struggles, has been instrumental in their 9-1 surge.

“When he had that turf toe, I should have left him out for two weeks,” said Drew, who allowed him to play games without practicing in that stretch. “He wasn’t able to perform and it actually hurt the team. It was a bad decision on my part to put him out there. … Now, he’s healthy and he’s getting triple doubles and he’s running the show.”

In Drew’s mind, Chery’s resurgence has made him a better coach.

“It comes down to players, even in the NBA,” Drew said. “If you lose LeBron, Michael Jordan or Kobe, you’re not as good a coach.”

Heading into the tournament semifinals, Baylor has all of its available players, a focused Austin and the league’s best record over its last 10 games. Expect the Bears to be a tough out in Kansas City, as well as in the NCAA Tournament.

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