In much the way we became accustomed to watching last season, Baylor relied on its defense to hold Illinois down until the Bears offense found its punch. Baylor held just a 49-46 advantage with just over 10 minutes remaining in the game before a 5-point surge from Adam Flagler (18 points, 3assists) sparked a 17-4 run over two minutes that put Baylor up for good. The Baylor Bears beat the Illinois Illini 82-69.
The defense was the key for Baylor. The Bears forced 12 turnovers, which were especially needed in the first half when the offense hadn’t yet found itself. Butler in the first half started a number of fast breaks with a steal, while Matthew Mayer (7 points, 7 rebs. 2 blocks) stepped up in the second half, creating turnovers as an on-ball defender and free lancing as a weak side shot blocker.
Jared Butler (12 points, 5 rebs) was a steady floor leader for Baylor all night. Although he scored one 2 points in the second half, he was a calming presence that put the offense in motion and controlled the tempo of the game on both ends. His consistent play allowed Davion Mitchell (12 points, 7 assists, 2 steals, 4-5 3PT) to force the action driving the ball and taking advantage of space to shoot threes and throw lobs to Jonathan Tchamwa-Tchatchoua (9 points, 9 rebs, 2 big slams).
Through the first three games, Illinois was the number one offensive and defensive rebounding team in the country. Opponents rebounded only 7.3% of their rebounds. Baylor won the rebound battle 38-35, in part thanks to Mark Vital’s 7 rebounds, but truly dominated the second-chance points. Baylor scored 24 points on their second efforts and held Illinois to just 7 points on 11 offensive rebounds. The Bears showed a physicality, particularly in the second half, that Illinois simply couldn’t meet.
Illinois two star players Kofi Cockburn and Ayo Dosunmu both had off nights. For Dosunmu, that is probably not too surprising. On any given possession Baylor has 3 or 4 top level perimeter defenders switching and denying everything. He finished just 6-18 and 4-15 from two-point range. He had been shooting reader than 60% from that range in his first three games. Cockburn, meanwhile, played just 18 minutes due to foul trouble.
The first half was a defensive struggle as both teams tried to find their footing on offense. Baylor shot 36% from the floor and 29% from three. The Illini shot 41%. The difference for Baylor was the forced turnovers leading to fast break opportunities and the second chance points. Illinois collected more offensive rebounds than Baylor (8-6 in Illinois’ favor), but Baylor made them count, taking a 11-4 edge in second-chance points.
Butler was the engine of the offense in the first half, taking twice as many shots as any of his teammates for 10 points. They were all deserved, as well. He found ways to sneak through the defense to get to short-range floaters and back shots. A few clean shots missed, but Butler was in control the entire time. Twice he rebounded his own miss, leading to 5 second-chance points from his effort alone.
Outside of Butler and a couple of clean jumpers from Flagler, the offense struggled in the half court. The Bears best scoring opportunities came in transition after forcing the Illini guards to cough up the ball. Butler forced three such steals, all leading to scores at the rim. The perimeter disruption that Baylor created kept the Bears in the game while the offense had trouble finding its shooting stroke.
After Cockburn sat with two early fouls, it looked like Baylor would have a great chance to take advantage of the star’s absence. Giorgi Bezhanishvili had other ideas. The Illinois big man scored 13 points on 6-8 shooting. His best looks came in the pick and roll, where Tchatchoua had some trouble recovering to his man to disrupt the entry pass. He is still learning the coverage schemes, and Bezhanishvili certainly took advantage.
Baylor tips off against Gonzaga at 12PM CT Saturday on CBS in the second game of the Jimmy V Classic. Gonzaga has already knocked off two of the three best Big XII teams this season, winning the season opener against Kansas and West Virginia in their most recent game. The Zags looked every bit the part of the No. 1 team in those wins. Baylor is a very, very good team in their own right. Everyone should be tuning in to see this tilt.