As Adam Flagler (16 pts, 4-6 FG) went to the line to sink his sixth free throw on as many attempts, it felt symbolic of the larger threat that the #1 Baylor Bears pose to opponents as they beat the #5 Villanova Wildcats 62-51.
Jared Butler struggled from outside the arc (1-9), and MaCio Teague attempted only 1 three all game. Davion Mitchell — one of the premiere shooters in the country — was 0-3 from deep. But just like everyone has said all season, Baylor and Scott Drew have the luxury of not three, but four starting guards. Flagler provided the offense that no one else could provide, going 2-3 from three, shooting perfect from line, and blowing past his defender for nifty layups.
It looked in the first half like this might just be the kind of game Baylor would drop. Going 2-12 from deep, allowing 50% shooting, and giving up 5 offensive rebounds was precisely the way you would predict a Baylor loss. Yet, the defense provided enough to be down just 7 points at the half. And when the defense is locked in — allowing just 30 points in the first half — it’s not hard for Bears fans to feel like the second-half counter-punch can knock the other team out.
Boy howdy did it.
Villanova, a team coached by Jay Wright, who is the coolest cat in coaching, looked positively scared to dribble the ball in the second half. Twice a Nova guard threw away the ball towards the backcourt to no one simply because Mitchell (14 pts, 2 stl) was staring them in the eye. The two steals credited to Mitchell, by the way, might be reported as actual crimes against humanity. He stripped his Justin Moore (15 pts, 3 ast, 3 TOs) at the top of the key as casually as you would reach for your own wallet. Twice. One led to a Matthew Mayer (6 pts, 3 rebs) layup, the other to a Flagler three.
Since we’ve mentioned him, let’s talk for a moment about Mayer. In the first half, it looked like one of those games where he plays 8 minutes and contributes absolutely nothing. His shot was off, and on defense he was gambling like a drunk deputy on a riverboat. He never really got going on offense (pardoning one no, no, no, YES! drive during the second half run), but his defensive rebounding in the second half felt meaningful. Sure, there he only grabbed three rebounds, but each one felt like he stole away a little bit of hope from Villanova. His rebounds were in traffic, physical, and emphatic. Usually when Mayer makes an impact, it’s on offense. Today, those three boards set the tone. Nova and Jeremiah Robinson-Earl (8 pts, 12 rebs) had had their way in the first half with put-back scores. During Baylor’s stretch run, Mayer shut that door.
That Baylor won a Sweet Sixteen game by double-digits while shooting sub-16% from three is another testament to how great these Bears are. Any other team would have folded. They would have let the offensive slump demoralize their defense.
Not these Bears.
These Bears scrap and fight to the end. They believe not just that the shots will eventually fall, but that playing defense will create the offensive opportunities they need to put their opponents away. Villanova averaged 8.8 turnovers this season. Tonight, Baylor turned them over 16 times, 9 in the second half. Baylor scored 22 points off of those turnovers.
These Bears can win any game.
They will face the winner of Arkansas-Oral Roberts in the Elite Eight, their first Eight Eight game since 2012.
Would it surprise anyone, by the way, to know that three of the five Eight Eights in Baylor program history have come under Scott Drew?
Whether it’s the Razorbacks or the Golden Eagles, Drew will have his team locked in on Monday night for a Final Four birth.