USA TODAY Sports
Please believe me when I tell you that I say the above in the most respectful way possible. Last night's loss marked the absolute end, an end I've called erroneously before, of Baylor's 2013 season with respect to the NCAA Tournament. But despite the disappointment, it was a fun ride.
I started writing this post at halftime of yesterday's game, when Baylor trailed 42-24 and looked as bad as the uniforms we must have lost a bet to have to wear. As it turned out, that was the low point of the evening as the Bears came out and made the game first respectable, then contested, and finally set the stage for one of the most controversial endings in school and conference history. With an en fuego Pierre Jackson leading the way, the Bears actually tied the game with around 30 seconds to go before losing on the call I have so loudly bemoaned. But if you want to avoid placing blame on the officials for whatever reason, as some apparently do, you'd say that the hole dug early just proved too much to overcome. Baylor missed too many shots early before missing them all again late and finally giving up shooting altogether.
Why things went so poorly in the first half really isn't a mystery. We took 13 3s and missed all of them. Isaiah Austin, Brady Heslip, and Cory Jefferson had 4 points total. We had nearly as many turnovers (7) as made field goals (8) and even managed to miss 3 free throws, only one of which came from Rico Gathers.
Speaking of Gathers, if there is a non-Pierre silver lining to this game, something we can take away and be happy about, he's it. He had 8 rebounds by himself in the first half, 5 of which came on the offensive end. He finished the game with 12 after somewhat inexplicably sitting for a while in the second half despite being easily our best player not named Pierre. On a night where Austin and Jefferson gave us almost nothing between them except several weak shots blocked by Mike Cobbins and one fiercely-mauled chair, he was the best rebounder on the floor and looked as good defensively as we've ever seen. I'm happy that we have him back next season even if we get to hear the same recycled storylines then about not having been in a weightroom, blah, blah, blah, blah. He's worth it.
If there was another positive, it would certainly be the comeback in and of itself. Most of it was Pierre simply being Pierre, but a lot of it was a suddenly-renewed emphasis on defense in the second half that held the Cowboys to only six field goals total, all of which came from Le'Bryan Nash. We were as good in the second half as the Cowboys were in the first, the last two Phil Forte free throws notwithstanding. We won't make the Tournament because of this loss (among all the others), but we showed in the second half that if that Tournament was truly a way to recognize the 64 best teams in the country (or 68 now), we would.
*I think you can include Taurean Prince in this generally, if not from this game. Prince is going to be a really good player for us down the road. He was just too raw to help in a big way this year, and we probably thought Deuce Bello would improve much more than he actually did. Still, the single biggest roster gap this team had was not bringing back Quincy Miller.
Still, despite the positives from the second half, Baylor fans no doubt feel empty today about this season. We're definitely on the wrong side of the bubble with no games left to play and a season that began with hope and high expectations ends in bitter disappointment. Arguably the best player in our history will leave without the chance to show what he can do again on the biggest stage. I am as sad for him as I am for anyone else. Pierre deserved another opportunity to showcase his skills, which are legion.
With no 5* top-20 national recruits coming in this season for the first time in 4 years, Baylor Basketball enters what could be a transitional period, a time to either rebuild or reload. We have some hope with guys like Kenny Chery on board and maybe Cory Jefferson coming back (tonight was not a good night for his NBA aspirations) to be an upper-echelon team in the conference next season. Who knows, perhaps Ishmail Wainright, as vocal a supporter of the Bears last night on twitter as any, comes in as the scorer off the wing we've needed since LaceDarius Dunn left. Maybe Desmond Lee pulls the trigger for the Bears and gives us immediate help alongside Chery. The possibility exists that we regroup this offseason, improve, and come back strongly. But we'll go into that offseason with an awful taste in our mouths after last night, which was basically a microcosm of the entire season.
I wasn't sure after the first half if we'd even merit an NIT bid with the way things were going, but coming back like we did makes it likely, I think. We didn't get blown out-- far from it, actually-- when we easily could have. That alone is worthy of pride for a team and program sorely needing it at this point. Whatever you think about them as individuals, the team as a whole fought to the bitter end as strongly as they could. Led by Pierre, they very nearly got where we hoped to be.