This postseason, the Bears climbed to the summit, reaching the Final Four for the first time since 1950. And when they finally had a chance to compete on that stage Saturday night at Lucas Oil Stadium, they delivered a showcase, proving their worthiness and potential as a No. 1 seed in the NCAA tournament. They dismantled No. 2 seed Houston, 78-59, and asserted their will from the start to earn a spot in Monday’s national title game.
Each time point guard Jared Butler nailed a three-pointer and at the end of every suffocating defensive possession, Baylor reinforced that it stood on a tier above the Cougars. Once a struggling program, the Bears have evolved into a consistent tournament team that has finally made it to the top.
“Every day you're grinding,” Drew said. “And you really don't look back. You just keep pressing forward.”
The championship game will cap a strange season played during a pandemic and mark the end of a tournament confined to one region and inside six sparsely filled Indiana arenas. But after an upset-ridden first weekend of the tournament, Baylor’s win in this semifinal was the first piece to a marquee title game matchup that pits the Bears against No. 1 overall seed Gonzaga, which defeated 11th-seeded UCLA, 93-90, in overtime Saturday night.
Gonzaga and Baylor have been considered the nation’s top teams all year, and their planned nonconference meeting was canceled because of coronavirus cases in Gonzaga’s program. After the cancellation, Drew said, he and Gonzaga Coach Mark Few joked, “If we end up playing this game in the Final Four or the championship game, that sounds like a better idea.”
By reaching the title game in such commanding fashion, the Bears demonstrated that they should be able to compete with the best. Against the Cougars, Baylor delivered a well-rounded performance, with sharp shooting from three-point range and the same solid defense that has stymied opponents throughout the tournament.
Baylor guard Davion Mitchell hit a three-pointer at the halftime buzzer, a fitting end to the team’s first-half offensive show. The Bears made eight shots from deep in the opening 20 minutes, helping them climb far ahead to ensure the Cougars could never threaten. Houston, meanwhile, only had one player with more than two points at the break, and the Cougars’ 25-point deficit at halftime was the fourth largest in national semifinal history.
“Houston doesn't give you anything,” Drew said. “You have to be really good. And that first half was about as well as any team could play against Houston.”
Butler, the Bears’ leading scorer, fueled his team’s early surge by hitting 4 of 5 three-point attempts in the first half on his way to a 17-point performance. Butler, one of the nation’s top point guards, entered the tournament shooting 42.9 percent from three, but he slumped to 25 percent during the four tournament games before the Final Four. Butler reemerged as Baylor’s offensive leader Saturday and powered the Bears all evening. Mitchell, recently named the national defensive player of the year, added 12 points with 11 assists, and five Baylor players finished in double figures.
“When we're all connected and we're all united,” Butler said, “it's hard for anybody to beat us.”
A team’s path to the final weekend hardly matters when fans and players remember tournament runs. Like Baylor’s, Houston’s Final Four berth also marked a landmark accomplishment for the program, which has been revived under Coach Kelvin Sampson and reached this round for the first time since 1984. But the Cougars arrived at Saturday’s matchup without having needed to beat any team with a single-digit seed.
The gap between these Texas programs was stark Saturday, particularly when the Cougars shot 26.9 percent from the field in the first half. Houston could hardly find any production outside sophomore guard Marcus Sasser, who made five three-pointers to score 17 of the Cougars’ 20 points before halftime.
The Bears thrive with their depth and experience. “I thought all year long our secret to our success has been our bench,” Drew said, adding that his team has a “starting rotation” rather than a starting lineup.
Early in the matchup, before Baylor had positioned itself firmly ahead of Houston, Jonathan Tchamwa Tchatchoua and Matthew Mayer entered the game off the bench, and together they generated a 10-0 Bears run. Both of those players reached double figures — 11 points for Tchamwa Tchatchoua and 12 for Mayer — and those contributions helped highlight Baylor’s excellence. When the Bears’ offense is at its best, with help from across a roster of experienced players, they can compete with the best programs and easily topple those not on that top tier.
The Bears started the season with 17 straight wins, making a case early on that they would be a title contender, but then their season abruptly paused because of coronavirus issues in the program. The team had to wait three weeks before it could play again, and even though Baylor won its first game back, the Bears appeared as though they had lost some of their moxie. But now with a chance to play for the program’s first national title, Baylor’s performance Saturday appeared to be a full return to that peak form.
“If we’re not where we were,” Drew said, “I can’t see the difference.”
— Story by Emily Giambalvo
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