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Fival Goes East: How Baylor Basketball Won the Program’s First Big 12 Title

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Baylor came back from 50-43 to win the team’s first Big 12 title since the outbreak of hostilities on the Korean Peninsula

NCAA Basketball: Baylor at West Virginia Ben Queen-USA TODAY Sports

As time ran out for Scott Drew hopped on Mark Vital’s back to celebrate Baylor’s 94-89 win over West Virginia to clinch Baylor’s first conference title since 1950—so long ago that the Korean War had not begun. Baylor is the first non-Kansas team to win an outright Big 12 title since 2004.

Coming off a 21 day COVID pause, Baylor hadn’t looked like Baylor in its two return games. They trailed Iowa State, a winless Big 12 team, by 15 points. Kansas, a squad Baylor blitzed by eight points in January, beat Baylor by 13 on Saturday.

With eight players contracting COVID in February, the question remained: would Baylor ever get back to what it was? That question became pressing as the best team in school history needed one win in its final three games to clinch the league.

Down 50-43 with 12 minutes left, and then 60-55 with 8:42 remaining, Baylor had a gigantic challenge. No. 6 West Virginia had won six-of-seven games; their lone loss was in double overtime to Oklahoma. Sean McNeil finished with 18 points and started the second half 3-of-4 from deep. Over the first eight minutes of the second half, West Virginia scored 2.1 points per possession; Baylor would have been better off surrendering the guaranteed two points of a dunk than what the Mountaineers averaged by torching from beyond the arc.

Facing such a monumental task, Baylor went to a lineup that carried them so many times. The Fival, with Mark Vital at the five, lifted Baylor in those key stretches. With increased spacing, the Bears hit needed triples. Davion Mitchell swished one to make it 60-58.

Unable to get many stops, Matthew Mayer ran near the sideline and flipped the ball over his shoulder to Davion Mitchell, which led to a layup. I asked Mayer about that after the game, and he said, “I just tipped it and didn’t even know if one of my teammates would be there.” That’s how this team operates. A belief that someone else on the team will be ready to meet the moment someone else provides.

That leads to Baylor’s defense. The Fival works because, as Davion Mitchell told me last month, “We can switch all ball screens.” That means players have to beat Baylor’s defenders one-on-one. Baylor didn’t get many stops today. Between the pause and West Virginia shooting so well that Virginia will approach West Virginia to consider reunification, the Bears looked too decimated to contain the Mountaineers. But late in the game, the Bears were able to switch on the perimeter and prevent McNeil and others from getting shots.

In one key sequence, Mark Vital stripped the ball leading to a bucket. After the game, Scott Drew found Vital to celebrate. Drew joked about the fifth year senior, “Well, Mark’s the only one who’s been here longer than me.”

Jared Butler finished with 25 points. With 2.2 seconds left, he drove into Derek Culver and made a layup to force overtime. He said, “We ran a slip ball screen. I saw the lane, and I was just like, ‘is he trying to take a charge, is he in the charge circle?’ I just thought, ‘I’m going to jump as high as I can and finish the charge process, and that’s my thought process.”

But with 1:15 left in overtime, Butler picked up his fifth foul. After that, he said, “I just couldn’t watch the game. I was praying with coach Charlie (Melton) in the tunnel.”

With Butler gone, Davion Mitchell took over. He made a layup, and then notched two free throws. With the additional space, Mitchell proved too quick to stop in the paint.

Down the stretch, everyone came up big. MaCio Teague added a clutch layup to keep the game within a score. Vital offensive rebounded and had a put-back in overtime. After he told Ashley Hodge and Jason King of SicEm365 earlier in the week that Baylor wasn’t tough enough against Kansas, his Bears were tonight. Once in the firs half, they corralled four offensive boards on one possession.

Even outside of the Fival, the other Bears came to play. Flo Thamba’s adept seals—which gave open driving lanes for Baylor’s guards—helped Baylor race out to a 21-9 lead.

When the game goes to overtime, every basket matters. That also makes Jonathan Tchamwa Tchatchoua’s dunks early in the first half integral. Plus there were Adam Flagler’s two free throws to clinch the game.

That Baylor felt comfortable going small late is a testament to Scott Drew and his staff. West Virginia had Derek Culver, perhaps the only non-Baylor player with a case for Big 12 Player of the Year. The 6’10 junior scored in double figures in his nine previous games. Despite the additional five minutes from overtime to accumulate more points—and after allowing 6’10 David McCormack to score 20 points on Saturday—Baylor held Culver to nine points.

The Bears understand they’re not all the way back. After the victory, Butler was asked about the COVID pause and said, “I didn’t really think it would hurt us.” But they all recognized they haven’t quite been themselves, because he said, “That pause really killed us...you lose some in-game shape.” Scott Drew added “The pause we had was the toughest one you can come back from.”

Baylor came back from the pause and won the Big 12 in the No. 6 team’s arena. Several of Baylor’s men passed up the chance to be millionaires to achieve this feat.

Now that they’ve won a conference title—something no Baylor team had done in 70 years—they’ll focus on getting right for the NCAA Tournament. They’ll do so buoyed by this win, and with added confidence to their belief they can do something no Baylor team has ever done: win the NCAA Tournament.