By Eric Prisbell
Washington Post Staff Writer
Saturday, March 27, 2010; D05
HOUSTON -- Baylor's Tweety Carter sauntered off the court Friday and flashed a wry smile in the direction of his team's fans. Next came Baylor Coach Scott Drew, who raised his arms high in the air to applaud the performance.
This was the scene at halftime, when a Sweet 16 celebration was already well underway at Reliant Stadium.
Playing 186 miles from campus in Waco, Baylor did not need any home-court advantage in a 72-49 rout of Saint Mary's. The third-seeded Bears advanced to play No. 1 seed Duke in Sunday's South Region final.
Seven years after one of the worst scandals in college basketball history, Baylor (28-7) is now one victory away from its first Final Four appearance since 1950. Friday's victory represented the latest step in Drew's dramatic makeover of a program that had been rocked by the murder of player Patrick Dennehy by a teammate and significant NCAA sanctions.
"That's why we came here, to be a part of something special," Carter said. "For us to come out of all the adversity, not give up, lean on each other, that's the key to our success this season."
Another reason is the improvement Baylor has made defensively since its last NCAA tournament appearance in 2008. The Bears start three players 6 feet 10 or taller, including Ekpe Udoh, who set a Big 12 single-season record for blocks.
The 10th-seeded Gaels had reached the Sweet 16 with back-to-the-basket post moves by a senior center and clutch outside shooting by some crafty guards. Neither weapon proved effective Friday against a Baylor team that possessed significant advantages in length and athleticism.
Saint Mary's 6-11 Omar Samhan, who had scored 61 points in his first two tournament games, expected a quiet night because he thought Baylor's zone defense would create long-range shooting opportunities for Saint Mary's guards.
But the Gaels' long-range shooting was erratic; they made 6 of 22 three-point shots. Even guard Mickey McConnell, who has made 51.7 percent of his three-pointers this season, tossed up an air ball.
Then there was Samhan, whose issues early were self-inflicted -- he missed two free throws and a layup in the game's first nine minutes. The gregarious big man made just 1 of 8 field goal attempts in the first half and showed none of the emotion that had made him a fan and media favorite. Samhan finished with 15 points and nine rebounds.
"We'll let the field goal percentage defense do the talking," Udoh said in response to a question about how Samhan had viewed the matchup.
Baylor pieced together a highlight reel of steals, dunks and three-point shots. On one sequence, Saint Mary's Mitchell Young lost the ball, and on the other end Carter fed teammate LaceDarius Dunn with an above-the-rim pass for a dunk that left McConnell on the floor under the basket. Dunn finished with a game-high 23 points.
All over the floor, Baylor had too much speed and size. When Saint Mary's guard Matthew Dellavedova tried an interior pass in the first half, his defender, 6-7 Quincy Acy, did not even need to jump to intercept the ball with his long arms. Later in the half, Baylor's A.J. Walton deflected a pass from Jorden Page and raced in for a breakaway layup.
Samhan had said that Saint Mary's guards had a shooting advantage over Baylor's guards. But in the first half, Carter and Dunn combined to make 5 of 8 three-pointers, while McConnell and Dellavedova shot a combined 2 of 9.
The Gaels (28-6) shot 35.2 percent for the game, and the outcome was never in doubt after Baylor built a 29-point halftime lead.
"We really did a tremendous job on their shooters, and that put more pressure on their inside," Drew said. "When we got the lead, it's tough to come back with two-pointers over 7-foot, 6-10 and 6-10."
Saint Mary's could not exploit one of Baylor's primary weaknesses: turnovers. The Bears rank 270th in turnover margin, but the Gaels didn't possess the defense that forces a lot of turnovers.
As a result, Baylor advanced to Sunday's region final without a test in the Sweet 16.
The Bears will likely need the home-court advantage they expect to have Sunday.
"We feed off their energy," Udoh said.