WACO, Texas — The Baylor Bears (13-2, 2-0) won their first conference home opener 81-72 in the Foster Pavilion in a hard-fought contest against the BYU Cougars (12-3, 0-2). Senior forward Jalen Bridges scored a season high 25 points, going 8-9 from the line on hard driving to the basket.
“Man, this place is so much better than the Ferrel Center.” That’s what Scott Drew quoted Bridges as saying after the game. It showed on his face, too, when asked to expand on the comment. “Man, it is a blessing to have a brand new arena, brand new facility,” Bridges said. “Fans brought it tonight, brought the energy tonight. When we went on our runs, we couldn’t even hear each other out there, when we were this close (reaching down the table to Nunn), we couldn’t hear each other. It’s great to have a home court advantage, especially in this league.” The entire team clearly feels ecstatic about the environment of Foster Pavilion.
Home court advantage or not, BYU brought a difficult game plan for Baylor to defend. They play a true 5-out offense, are quick to shoot from outside, and run some just nifty off-ball actions to get cutters going to the rim. Johnson and Hall both played some bully ball against even the sturdy Love. The screening to get players like Saunders, Johnson, and Robinson going towards the basket was really what allowed BYU to shoot 52 FG% in the first half despite being just 4-13 from deep. It’s a testament to Baylor’s ability to adjust that BYU shot just 46% in the second half while also committing 14 turnovers on the game to Baylor’s 5.
In a game that saw 8 lead changes, the pivotal moment for the Bears got started on the defensive end, when RayJ Dennis (10 points, 4 assists, 2 steals), swiped down on a Jaxson Robinson shot attempt and took the ball downcourt, finding a streaking Jayden Nunn (11 points, 3 assists, 3 steals) for the layup that made it 58-57 Bears with just under 9 minutes remaining. Langston Love (15 points, 4 rebounds) knocked down a three the next possession to cap a 7-0 Baylor run that took the lead for good.
Both Nunn and Love made huge plays all game. Love hit a three that tied things up a 22 in the first half, while Nunn turned defense into offense all night. In one sequence, Nunn knocked the ball free from Dallin Hall (14 points, 4 rebounds, 4 assists, 4 turnovers) in the backcourt. It bounced to Dennis, who immediately fired it back to Nunn for a three that cut the lead to 45-41 early in the second half. Baylor had scouted that they wanted to drive in against BYU and draw fouls, and Nunn and Love are two of Baylor’s best foul drawers.
And the foul disparity (28 attempts for Baylor, 14 for BYU, who didn’t attempt a free throw in the second half until just under 3 minutes left in the game) was a big part of what allowed Baylor to separate in the second half. The Bears were relentless attacking off the dribble. Both teams typically count on a lot of second-chance points. Neither got many of those tonight. That made the free throw line the difference maker.
Five Bears finished in double-figures.
BYU proved it’s a team that cannot be taken lightly in conference play, despite being a new member. They were brilliant in non-conference play, moving from a middling team expected to finish near the bottom of the league to a top 10 KenPom rated squad in the Top 25 of the AP. The 0-2 start in conference play is tough, but they were in control of the game for stretches at a time, especially in the first half. Once Baylor started digging in and forcing turnovers, though, BYU couldn’t maintain control and stop the bleeding. Spencer Johnson is a Big 12 level guard, and Robinson is the kind of player who can break out of a game plan to win the game in big moments.
Tonight, the Bears showed the value of experience in the Big 12. They know how to play and win in physical style.
On Saturday Baylor will welcome yet another new conference rival as the Cincinnati Bearcats come to Waco for a primetime game broadcast on ESPN, the first that the Foster Pavilion will host on the men’s side.
What do you want to bet it looks nice in the bright lights?