Taz Sherman exploded for 29 points for the West Virginia Mountaineers, but 25 points from Akinjo and 9 points in the final 4 minutes from Matthew Mayer pushed the Bears to a 81-77 win over the visiting Mountaineers.
The Bears willed themselves to a victory in this one. It helped, too, that Sherman left the game with an apparent injury with 3:42 remaining following a steal by Jeremy Sochan (13 pts, 9 rebs). Huggins said after the game that Sherman suffered a concussion after making contact with Sochan’s arm.
The Mountaineers lost the game despite going 9 for 11 in the last 11 minutes of the game with a 9-point lead.
“I thought we did a great job second half in limiting them to just 4 threes. They made some tough shots,” Drew said.
Baylor was without LJ Cryer (foot) for a second straight game as Adam Flagler (knee) sat out his second game of the season. It looked for much of the game like Baylor simply didn’t have enough offense to get past a West Virginia team that seemed to have an answer for every run.
Drew said both Cryer and Flagler are considered day-to-day.
The Baylor Bears moves to 19-3 (7-2), alone in second in the conference and one loss behind Kansas. They’ve managed this despite missing key players for the past 3 weeks.
Baylor retook the lead in the second half 64-63 following a gorgeous drop off pass from Bonner to Tchamwa-Tchatchoua after trailing since the 2:29 mark of the first half.
West Virginia and Baylor would go on to trade the lead or tie 4 more times before Baylor finally wrested the game away on free throws, of all things. The Bears were 6-8 in final 2 minutes after going 7-17 the rest of the game.
Mayer didn’t score his first points until a fast break layup with 3:27 left to give the Bears a 68-66 lead. He would score 7 straight points to give the Bears a two possession lead with 2 minutes remaining.
“Credit to Matt,” Akinjo said. “If not for those baskets, we wouldn’t have won the game. He wasn’t having the best game, but credit to him for mental toughness, staying locked in.”
Drew mentioned midweek that it’s difficult to build chemistry and rhythm with players in and out of the lineup. Flagler being announced as out prior to the game, along with Cryer’s continued absence, is exactly what Drew was talking about. Conference games are challenging enough when you play in the best conference in the country. Playing a conference game against a desperate opponent while missing two of your top three scorers raises the bar even higher.
These Bears met that bar tonight.
It looked for most of the game like Baylor didn’t have anyone who could match Sherman’s shooting. Akinjo, who took time in this game to find his rhythm, locked in in the final 10 minutes and willed his team to victory. His 25 points came on 17 shot attempts, but he was 4-7 from three and 7-8 from the line by the time it was all over.
In the second half about the time Baylor made its surge, the tension on the court was obviously high. There was shoving by both sides. Akinjo clearly thrives in that kind of setting. “Definitely, that’s who I am. That’s the kind of game I’m built for, that playground basketball type style...that trash talking. That’s what made the game fun. I got guys around me built for it, too.”
Baylor started the game 5-7 from the field with great ball movement, and it seemed for a while that Baylor had the game plan to win. Akinjo and Bonner played well off each other, and the ball found open shooters. Akinjo had a couple of great dimes to the roll man, too, as WVU struggled to stay connected on defense.
Turner, too, was serviceable in his minutes. He made the right rotations and switches on defense, and moved well on offense, even if he didn’t provide any offensive juice.
Over the course of the game, it seemed like the minutes load was going to be too much. Akinjo played 38 minutes, and 3 other Bears played 26+ minutes. As the game wore on, Baylor just didn’t have the legs to close out on West Virginia’s shooters or stay in front of drivers. Then, miraculously, West Virginia couldn’t hold onto the ball against Baylor’s ball pressure.
The Bears started the game 0-6 from the line until Tchamwa-Tchatchoua hit his first two, losing out on what was otherwise a great foul advantage in the game. Baylor had 11 attempts before WVU had even 1, and the Bears left 7 points on the court. Over the course of the game, the free throw attempts evened out.
West Virginia took advantage of the early poor free throw shooting (5-13) and poor shooting overall (12-33 FG, 2-13 3PT) to end the first half on a 16-1 run and a 39-31 lead.
Jonathan Tchamwa-Tchatchoua finished with 14 points and 6 rebounds. Kendall Brown added 9 points on 6 shots and 5 rebounds. Three different Bears tallied 4 assists, and Sochan had another 3.
Perhaps the decisive stat of the game: Baylor held a 24-2 second chance points advantage. “Wow. I’m surprised, actually,” Tchamwa-Tchatchoua laughed.
“You only beat West Virginia and Coach Huggins 24-2 in second chance as often as that snow storm we had last year,” Drew added after the game.
With a gritty win to celebrate, Baylor must now prepare to face the Kansas Jayhawks on Saturday.
First place in the conference will be on the line, just like everyone expected when the New Year began.