WACO, Texas - The Baylor Bears (15-5, 5-3) have officially righted the ship after knocking off No. 9 Kansas 75-69 for their fifth straight victory after starting conference play 0-3.
After the Kansas Jayhawks (16-4, 5-3) took their only lead of the game 46-45, it had the feeling of a game Baylor might let slip away. The first half momentum lost and hot shooting cooled, would they have an answer against the class of the Big 12?
Their answer started with a tough Langston Love and-one layup. Then it was an Adam Flagler pull-up three. Then for the next two minutes, Baylor poured on a 12-3 run that reestablished the momentum for the rest of the game.
LJ Cryer was the catalyst in the first half. His 19 first half points built all the energy. When he hit three straight threes, it felt like there wasn’t going to be anything that would stop him. He would finish with 22 points and some clutch free throws. Flagler’s 17 points came here and there, but none were bigger than the three that helped spark the second half run.
Even when Kansas was able to bring it back within five in the final two minutes, you knew Baylor needed just a handful of good plays to lock it away.
That’s when Love (11 pts) drove into the lane for the foul. He made both free throws to make it 72-65, just enough of a lead to keep Kansas at arm’s length and drain the clock. That possession followed a tough offensive rebounding effort from Flo Thamba, whose stat line of 4 points and 2 rebounds understates his impact, particularly on the offensive glass. His effort there extended the possession so that Love could get that foul. Then on the following possession, he drew attention so that Jalen Bridges (11 pts, 9 rebs) could soar in for his fourth offensive rebound of the game. He, too, would draw a foul. He hit 3 of his 4 free throws in the final minute, icing the game as Kansas pushed pace to close the gap.
Both coaches were impressed by Bridges effort tonight on the glass. “Huge,” Scott Drew said of Bridges after the game. “He’s been great. His offensive rebounding, taking care of the basketball.”
“It seemed like to me,” Bill Self said, “Bridges more than anybody else did a great job on the offensive glass.”
Until those final five minutes of the game when they pushed out in transition, it rarely felt like Kansas didn’t have the offensive horses to really challenge for the game. Dajuan Harris (2 pts, 4 asts) passed up several open outside looks, and Kevin McCullar (14 pts, 12 rebs, 3-9 FG) struggled with efficiency from the floor. Grades Dick (24 pts) and Jalen Wilson (23 pts) had some brilliant individual moments, but it never felt they could string together long stretches of consistent offense.
Credit Baylor’s defense for that. Kansas turned the ball over 15 times for a turnover percentage (23%) well above their season average (17%). In transition, too, the Bears identified their man and closed off the path to the rim. They allowed only 6 transition points all game, and 4 of those came in the final two or three minutes when Kansas really pushed hard. Otherwise, Kansas faced a set defense most of the night, and they didn’t have a guard who could break things down and cause havoc.
Transition defense, in particular, has been a sore spot for the Bears this season. Tonight, they solved it. “Once we’re communicating and flying around, we know we can get the job done,” Flagler commented after the game.
This top 10 win caps a turnaround previously built off the bottom of the conference and signifies the Bears do, in fact, intend to contend for another conference title. Self commented on his team’s three-game losing streak that it’s really not so big a deal. Everyone is going to have stretches like this, he thinks. Well, Baylor had their skid to start the new year. And while it could certainly happen again, the Bears are out to prove that they’re every bit the threat that everyone thought they’d be at the start of the season.