Your Bears are Big XII champions. Again.
Baylor is the first non-Jayhawks team to win back-to-back conference titles since Iowa State and Jamaal Tinsley won them in the ‘99-’00 and ‘00-’01 seasons.
Tonight’s game was an encapsulation of the season, in some ways. When the season began, Baylor was off to a 15-0 start and looked to be a slightly altered version of last season’s juggernaut. Baylor led Iowa State tonight in the first half 29-4. Then the Bears went on a two-game skid. Then Iowa State tied the game with 8 minutes to go. Doubts crept in.
These Bears, though, never gave up on this season or this game.
“I think you saw the heart of this team,” Drew said to the crowd with confetti strewn across the court.
“It’s really hard to win a game when you know you win, you’re a champion,” Drew said after the celebration. “I didn’t even know about Kansas. I didn’t want to know. Now I’m not dumb, since if Texas would have won there would have been an announcement or someone would have said ‘Congrats!’
“Last year, you like winning it with four games to go. This one had a little more drama in it. Made for TV.”
As the game went back and forth down the stretch, Robert Jones (12 pts, 6 rebs) was driving in for a massive dunk to put his team ahead. “I was gonna get that, no question,” Brown laughed after the game. The brilliant block by Kendall Brown against a soaring Jones gave Baylor the spark it needed to see the game through. “That was a big,” Akinjo laughed, “Credit to Kendall for putting his reputation as a jumper on the line.” ISU fouled Jeremy Sochan (12 pts, 6 rebs) in the aftermath, and both teams were in the bonus. During Sochan’s free throw attempt, though, Flo Thamba was called for his 4th foul. Luckily, George Conditt (9 pts, 4 rebs) missed the front end and Baylor got the ball back without harm.
The following trip, Gabe Kalscheur — who was brilliant in an 18 point showing — drilled a contested baseline jumper to give the Cyclones the lead again, and Akinjo, as he had done throughout the game, answered with a massive three to put the Bears up with 3:34 remaining. Akinjo would finish his senior-night game with 20 points, 6 assists, and 4 rebounds. When it was winning time, he came through.
The next Baylor possession, Thamba missed the front-end of his free throws, but Brown — again using his electric athleticism to impact the game — skied for the massive rebound and set Akinjo up to drive in for the reverse, putting Baylor up 67-64.
After the game, Akinjo addressed the crowd as they chanted “One more year!”, thanking Baylor for welcoming him into the team and family. Rarely does a transfer have such an impact as Akinjo has had for the defending national champions. “He was really crucial,” Drew said of his point guard after the game.
“It means a lot,” Akinjo had to say on winning the conference. “I’ve been productive scoring and assisting at other programs, but I haven’t had the chance to win a conference championship…I’m really grateful for the opportunity.
“One of the big things on my list was to be a winner.”
Kalscheur missed a three to tie it again, and Brown’s elbow jumper put Baylor up two possessions with under 2:30 to play. That jumper gave Brown 15 of his 16 points on the night to go along with 10 massive rebounds.
Thamba (7 pts, 8 rebs) hit both his free throws after another defensive stop, and the lead was back to 7 with 90 seconds to play. He, too, received chants of acclaim from the crowd, as did Matthew Mayer, who contributed 7 points, 5 assists, and 2 rebounds. Mayer would be the first to snip off a piece of the net in the after-game celebrations.
The final dagger that put the game away in the end: a scrappy steal from Sochan as Kalscheur dribbled the ball up the court and stumbled. Sochan tied the ball up for the jump ball, and Flagler hit a free throw to put the Bears back up 6 and out of reach.
The first half was a demonstration of how dominant this team can still be. With 8 minutes remaining, a pair of Adam Flagler free throws set the score at 29-4 and capped a 22-0 run spanning nearly 10 minutes of game time. It was a welcome sight, particularly as Kansas outlasted Texas in overtime to claim a portion of the Big XII title. Brown and Sochan had 11 and 10 points, respectively, going a combined 8-12 from the floor.
“They aren’t freshmen anymore,” Drew said.
The defense all game was smothering, but it got to ridiculous proportions during Baylor’s epic run. When a Sochan jumper made it 27-4, Baylor was shooting 50% from the floor to that point. ISU was 12% with 6 turnovers and 7 fouls. In one defensive possession, Thamba swallowed Brockington near the rim, then took the charge from Hunter, saving two baskets in a single possession. By the end of the game, both teams shot 47% from the field, a testament to the adjustments Iowa State was able to make as the game progressed.
Those adjustments started before halftime. The half ended on a 12-2 Iowa State run when the Cyclones finally found ways to get the ball inside to their bigs, Conduit and Jones. The half with a Klascheur corner-three, and Baylor’s once 25-point lead was down to 10 going into the locker room. Tyrese Hunter, who scored just three points, tallied 13 assists in the game, including that Kalscheur three to end the half.
The resilience of these Bears has been on display the whole conference season. Even when those outside the program had their doubts, Baylor put their heads down and found ways to win.
Worth noting here: As our friend David Hornbeak noted on the BasketPod, Baylor is now the only Big XII school to have gone back-to-back in the three major sports of football and men’s and women’s basketball in the history of the conference. They’ve gone back-to-back in both men’s and women’s basketball simultaneously, also unprecedented, I’m sure. For the audience: has any school, ever, enjoyed the success Baylor has in the past two years?
Mack Rhoades, present in the postgame press conference, received praise from his most recent championship coach, “You know he won the Athletic Director (of the Year) last year, he’s the odds on favorite this year — man is on fire! Don’t shake his hand. It’ll burn you.” What Rhoades has helped to build at a private religious institution in a power conference is unparalleled. He almost can’t receive enough acclaim, especially given the mess he walked into.
Baylor will be the 2 seed in the Big XII Tournament next week in Kansas City, and as for seeding in the NCAA Tournament, Drew commented “If they let me decide, we’ll be (a one seed).”
Enjoy this, Baylor Nation. You’ve got something beyond special in this team and your university athletics.