ATLANTA — As he rebuilt Baylor’s basketball program in the wake of scandal, Scott Drew became one of college basketball’s most unpopular coaches, earning the reputation as an overly aggressive recruiter and an inadequate bench coach.
But even Drew’s critics cannot deny the improbable success he has had in his nine-year tenure. With Friday’s 75-70 South Region semifinal victory over 10th-seeded Xavier, third-seeded Baylor advanced to its second Elite Eight appearance in three seasons. The Bears will play top-seeded Kentucky in Sunday’s region final.
Only two times in program history has Baylor won three games in an NCAA tournament — this season and in 2010, when the Bears ultimately lost to eventual national champion Duke in the Elite Eight.
Drew believes this team has the potential to be just as good as the 2010 team. And the Bears (30-7) displayed much of that talent Friday, storming out to an 18-point first-half lead.
Baylor’s Perry Jones III, one of the nation’s most talented and enigmatic players, had scored a total of nine points in the Bears’ two previous NCAA tournament victories. But on Friday, the 6-foot-11 sophomore came alive with 14 points on 7-of-8 shooting.
Fellow forward Quincy Acy had 20 points on 8-of-11 shooting. Acy also grabbed 15 rebounds.
Baylor was in control of the game until a turnover with 25.6 seconds to play gave Xavier hope. Trailing by six, guard Tu Holloway sank a 26-foot three-pointer to cut the deficit in half. But the Bears made free throws in the closing seconds to secure the win.
“Down the stretch we made it a little closer than it needed to be with some careless turnovers, but credit them for not giving up and fighting through,” Drew said.
During Baylor’s last trip to the Sweet 16, they played in front of a partisan crowd in Houston, which is just three hours from Baylor’s campus. While the Georgia Dome did not provide quite the same ambience, the crowd included Drew’s parents, Homer and Janet, who attended their first Baylor game of the season.
Homer, the former Valparaiso coach, had surgery last fall for prostate cancer, while Janet had surgery for bladder cancer. Homer’s illness was caught in its early stages, but Janet’s was more advanced. She has finished her chemotherapy treatments.
“She was worn out getting here,” Drew said. “I think if we would have lost and she had to drive back tomorrow, she would have really hated me.”
Baylor fans cheered a team outfitted in Adidas uniforms seemingly colored by a yellow highlighter. The Bears never trailed against a Musketeers team that has become an indelible part of the NCAA tournament in recent years, representing one of only four teams to make the Sweet 16 four times in the past five years.
This season’s run was particularly improbable considering their season cratered in the aftermath of the Dec. 10 brawl with cross-city rival Cincinnati.
The Bears overwhelmed Xavier at the start with their length, athleticism and hot shooting. They quickly raced out to a 12-2 lead after Brady Heslip had two hard drives to the basket for layups.
Less than seven minutes into action, Baylor led 19-4 after making 9 of 11 field goal attempts, including a three-pointer by Heslip, who had made nine in Baylor’s round-of-32 victory over Colorado.
A dazzling sequence occurred midway through the half, when Jones dribbled the ball upcourt and flipped a pass ahead to guard A.J. Walton, who fired it back at Jones for a transition layup.
But the deficit did not rattle Xavier, which clawed back from a 15-point deficit in the second round against Lehigh. The turning point Friday occurred after Acy emphatically threw down a dunk to give his team a 17-point advantage.
“I want to see his birth certificate,” Xavier Coach Chris Mack said jokingly of Acy. “He’s that kid, when you’re coaching AAU and you look over, and he just looks so much bigger and stronger than everybody.”
Acy’s problem was that on the other end of the court he threw 7-footer Kenny Frease down with the same ferocity as his dunk. A flagrant foul was assessed, and Frease made two free throws and the ensuing layup to start Xavier’s 12-0 run.
A three-pointer by Baylor’s Pierre Jackson in the final seconds of the first half represented the Bears’ first points in five minutes. That led to an eruption of cheers by the Baylor players on the bench who wore T-shirts that read “One Team, One God, One Goal.”
Two years after falling short, Baylor is now one step from the Final Four again.
“We know how the taste felt in our mouth last time we were here [in the Elite Eight] and we don’t want to go out with that same taste,” Acy said.