Landing the first punch. Once a Baylor shortcoming, it has become the team’s calling card this postseason.
The Bears staggered Creighton with another quick salvo Sunday, hitting more than 80 percent from the field during the early stages to swing the momentum in the AT&T Center. It never swung back as the Bears rolled to an 85-55 victory and secured a berth in next week’s Sweet 16, the team’s third in its last three NCAA Tournament appearances (2010, 2012, 2014).
“We’ve started slow in the past and exploded in the second half. But you can’t let that happen when you play a great team,” said point guard Kenny Chery, summarizing the quick-start mindset that has helped Baylor build double-digit, first-half leads in all six of its postseason games this season (four in the Big 12 tournament, two in the NCAA). Baylor (26-11) has won five of those six, including a 2-0 mark in NCAA play heading into next week’s Sweet 16 matchup against Wisconsin in Anaheim, Calif.
“That’s one thing coach said to us, ‘You’ve got to deliver the first punch,’ ” said Chery, who buried three shots from behind the arc in the Bears’ 19-7 break from the gate in the first seven minutes. “When you fall behind a great team, it’s hard to come back. So what we’ve improved is giving the first punch.”
Creighton (27-8), the No. 3 seed in the West Region, never recovered. Bluejays forward Doug McDermott, who entered as the nation’s leading scorer (27.0 ppg), never got untracked. McDermott managed just three points and zero rebounds in the decisive first half, when Baylor built a 40-20 lead by taking target practice from behind the 3-point line. He finished with 15 points, a dozen below his season average.
Baylor, meanwhile, hit 7 of 9 long-range shots before intermission (77.8 percent), as well as 63.6 percent of all shots (14 of 22) in a dominant first-half performance. The Bears’ zone defense stymied McDermott by exhibiting what coach Scott Drew called “good Doug awareness.”
Creighton’s 20-point opening half was its second lowest of the season. For the game, the Bluejays shot only 20.8 percent from behind the arc, well below their season average.
The Bears, on the other hand, shot a blistering 63.8 percent for the game and 61.1 percent on 3-pointers (11 of 18).
With 6:49 remaining in the game, three Baylor shooters were a combined 10 of 10 from behind the arc: Chery (4-4), Brady Heslip (4-4) and forward Royce O’Neale (2-2). Eventually, all five Baylor starters scored in double digits, led by center Isaiah Austin (17 points, four rebounds) and Heslip (17 points, three assists).
The triumph boosted Baylor’s record to 17-3 in its last five postseason tournaments under Drew (three NCAAs, two NITs) and gave Drew his first victory over a higher-seeded team in an NCAA matchup. Until Sunday, the Bears’ last seven triumphs in the NCAA Tournament had all come against double-digit seeds.
“We’ve all learned the seeds don’t matter in March Madness,” Drew said. “If you don’t play well, you go home.”
But if you play really well, you send a message. Austin, an Arlington Grace Prep graduate, considered Sunday’s game a message to those who doubted the Bears during their 2-8 slump at midseason.
“We definitely hear them, but we don’t see them,” Austin said. “We take pride in people hating on us and we love proving people wrong. Our team right now, we have a tremendous amount of confidence. Everybody has bought in to the one goal that we have and that is winning a national championship.”
Baylor seized control quickly against Creighton, with Austin and forward Cory Jefferson (14 points, four rebounds) controlling matters in the paint while Chery (14 points, three assists) and guard Heslip connected almost at-will from behind the arc. Baylor built a double-digit lead by the 13:07 mark of the first half, pushed it past 20 points on the first possession of the second half and ended with its most lopsided victory since routing TCU 91-58 in January.
“I’m not sure if it was Baylor being that good or us being that bad,” Creighton coach Greg McDermott said. “Probably somewhere in between.”
Either way, Creighton is headed home. And Baylor, the No. 6 seed in the West, is moving on after a sound pounding of a higher seed.
“It was just awesome,” said Baylor forward Rico Gathers, who scored six points and grabbed nine rebounds in 16 minutes of action. “I was glad we were hitting on all cylinders.”
Baylor has been doing that a lot lately. Ever since the Bears began delivering the first punch on a nightly basis in the postseason.