Sports

Baylor can't keep Missouri from leaving with Big 12 title

KANSAS CITY, Mo. -- Apparently, this new-look, neon-colored Big 12 is not an all-Baylor, all-the-time proposition after all.

No. 5 Missouri made sure of that Saturday on its way out the door to the Southeastern Conference.

The Tigers thumped No. 12 Baylor 90-75 in the championship game of the Big 12 men's basketball tournament to prevent a green-and-gold sweep of Saturday's titles.

Not even the presence of the top-ranked Baylor women's team in the Sprint Center could help their male counterparts contain the Tigers (30-4), who arrived in Kansas City with a point to prove -- and a possible NCAA Tournament top seed to claim -- and let nothing deter them over three games.

With the exception of some defensive lapses at the start of each half, Baylor (27-7) played well enough to beat most teams in the country Saturday.

But not Missouri. Not with the focus the senior-laden Tigers brought to this particular tournament, where they were on a mission to claim one final Big 12 tournament title and -- ideally -- to rub it in the face of rival Kansas, one last time, as a conference counterpart.

When Baylor knocked off the third-ranked Jayhawks in Friday's semifinals, the Tigers unleashed their fury on Baylor instead. Mizzou shot 53.8 percent from the field Saturday and 55.4 percent over the three-game tournament. They had the best assist-to-turnover ratio (2.0) of any team in Kansas City, including a 14-8 mark Saturday.

They stand as one of the primary reasons Baylor coach Scott Drew declined to allow his players to hang their heads over Saturday's title shot that eluded them.

Instead, he called the high-profile thumping -- which probably locked Baylor into a No. 3 seed with the NCAA Tournament selection committee -- a "good learning experience" for a team that showed more mental toughness during the Big 12 tournament than it did during crunch time in the regular season.

"We really had three road games: Kansas, Kansas State and Missouri," Drew said, summarizing the Bears' 2-1 ledger at the Sprint Center against three fellow NCAA-bound teams. "At the end of the day, I think we grew up. But this was the next stage. And the next stage is handling success and bouncing to the next level."

Missouri, with its four-guard offense and its five seniors in its seven-player rotation, understands how to do that. Baylor, which has four starters preparing to make their NCAA Tournament debuts next week, does not. Yet.

"I think we'll learn some things from this game, and hopefully it will prepare us for the NCAA Tournament," Drew said. "Especially if we play a team that's guard-oriented like this."

Unlike its first two opponents in the Big 12 tournament, Mizzou was not fazed by Baylor's recent emphasis on a three-guard attack, which relies heavily on man-to-man defense and gets A.J. Walton, the team's best on-the-ball defender, more involved. The Tigers did not slow the resurgent Perry Jones III (16 points, 11 rebounds), who joined Baylor teammate Brady Heslip (14 points) on the All-Big 12 Tournament Team.

But the Tigers did overwhelm Baylor with their relentless ball movement on offense, as well as consistent penetration from their guards that allowed Missouri to outscore Baylor in the paint 36-34, despite the Bears' height advantage.

"We've got to learn how to defend the perimeter," Jones said. "They're a tough team to match up with. But no matter who it is, you've got to be able to defend them if you want to win the championship."

For Baylor, the clock is ticking in terms of applying lessons learned Saturday to next week's NCAA Tournament. For Missouri, the time appears right for a legitimate run at the school's first appearance in the Final Four.

Players showed boundless emotion as the clock ticked down in the final minute and the pro-Mizzou crowd broke into chants of "SEC! SEC!" while securing a Big 12 tournament title. To a man, the Tigers claimed Kansas City -- a town they share with Kansas in terms of fan base -- as their city, at least for a day. Most important, they grasp what makes them special.

"We all ... fought with a lot of heart and toughness," said sixth man Michael Dixon, who had 17 points. "You can't really measure that with this team."

No, you can't. But Missouri has had it all season. Baylor is developing it, just in time to head to the NCAA Tournament.

For the Bears, the lingering question is whether lessons learned Saturday can expedite the process.

Jimmy Burch, 817-390-7760

Twitter: @Jimmy_Burch

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