Ja’Kobe Walter set a Baylor Bears record for points in a freshman debut and led his team to a 88-82 victory over the Auburn Tigers to open the season.
With the Bears trailing by 9 at half, Walter ignited the team with 6 of his 28 points with a brilliant sequence: and-one, steal, open three. Over the next 15 minutes these teams played back and forth basketball with shotmaking, defense, and flashy transition action. Auburn couldn’t extend the lead beyond 6 points.
The game looked like it might slip away with 5 minutes remaining when Jayden Nunn (7 points, 3 assists, 3 steals, 1 block, 0 turnovers) stole the ball at half court but blew the open layup, the second missed rim shot by the Bears in the half. But Baylor’s defense locked down Auburn in the final five minutes, going on a 17-7 run to hand Bruce Pearl his first season-opening loss since becoming the Tigers’ coach. A Nunn steal leading to a wide-open three for RayJ Dennis (15 pts, 4 reb, 2 ast, 2 stl, 7 TO) tied the game at 77. Baylor never gave up the lead after that.
While Walter was the freshman who dominated the game, it was another freshman for the Bears who put the game away: Yves Missi (10 pts, 2 stl, 2 blk). Shortly after that game-tying Dennis three, Missi stole the ball on the inbound at half court, drove to the rim, and absolutely detonated over a trailing Auburn defender. The next trip down the floor, Missi’s two free throws made the lead 4 points. Then down on defense, Missi competed for a defensive rebound in a crowd around the rim that eventually fell to Jalen Bridges (13 pts, 8 Reb, 2 stl, 1 blk). A signature floater from Dennis put the lead at 6 after that, and it was the free throw game after that.
Baylor’s shooting talent showed out early in the game as Baylor rode 4 threes from Walter and Bridges to a 20-16 lead. Just a few minutes later, though, Auburn turned up its defensive intensity and flipped the half. Baylor committed 5 straight turnovers in less than 2 minutes, and 4 of them were by Dennis, who finished the half with 7 turnovers and only 1 assist.
Walter’s 13 first half points demonstrated early that he will be a force in the Big 12. He was locked in on both ends, using his first-step and shooting ability to take advantage of what the defense gives him. He was the biggest bright spot of Baylor’s first half and carried the team until the defense found its footing to close out the game.
Bridges is obviously going to be the linchpin of the team. He played nearly the first 10 minutes of the game before being subbed out as the teammates around him hardly played more than 2 or 3 consecutive minutes. The rotation steadied a little in the second half but featured Bridges no less. His rebounding, help defense, and scoring bring a combination that just no one else on the team has.
While the uneven first half showed some of the expected weaknesses of a new team, the second half equally highlighted what will make them such a tough out. Passes were late or uncertain, and possessions frequently resulted in one-on-one attacks that were bothered at the rim by Auburn’s interior defense. Just as often, though, those one-on-ones resulted in baskets against Auburn’s weaker defenders or got the ball on the rim for an offensive rebound and kick-out threes, two of which belonged to the perennially nicked up Langston Love (10 pts, 1 stl).
Baylor won tonight despite absolutely tanking the assist/turnover ratio with 10 assists and 15 turnovers. Oh, and Auburn had 10 blocks. In the end, Baylor’s ability to get to the line (and some very easy whistles all night from the refs) provided the separation needed to win as the Bears had a 34 to 25 advantage in attempts and a 27 to 17 advantage in free throw makes.
The Bears will have their home opener Thursday morning against John Brown for the annual Future Bears day. If you can get away from work, bring your ear muffs of suffer the shrill exuberance of 5,000 elementary school students.
It’s a great start to what promises to be a fun, fun season.