Baylor passes biggest test; Oral Roberts falls just short

By Billy Witz

This men’s college basketball season featured an early-season delight for the sport’s aficionados, a neutral site matchup of the teams that prognosticators tabbed as the best in the country — the highflying Gonzaga Bulldogs against the slick but dogged Baylor Bears.

It would be a measuring stick game in Indianapolis, one that would provide a preliminary peak at who might be the most likely to return here to cut down the nets in early April.

And then, about 90 minutes before the December tipoff, the game was called off after two people in Gonzaga’s traveling party had tested positive for the coronavirus. Instead of sizing up a front-runner, it instead gave an idea of what was ahead for a season that proceeded through months of fits and starts caused by the pandemic.

Now, months later, that anticipated matchup moved one step closer after Baylor rallied past a determined Villanova, 62-51, on Saturday to advance to the Elite Eight. Even though it was played before scattered fans in a quaint Hinkle Fieldhouse instead of a roaring, packed arena, the game carried the feel of a heavyweight brawl.

It is hard to imagine Baylor, a top seed, being tested more tonight against Arkansas than it was by fifth-seeded Villanova, which was trying to muster up another run to the Final Four even if it had to do so without Collin Gillespie, its injured point guard and senior leader.

On an uncharacteristically jittery shooting afternoon, Baylor — which trailed by 7 at halftime and by 6 midway through the second half — turned up its pressure on the ball, which turned the game in the Bears’ favor.

“When there’s this much pressure, win or go home, sometimes pressure bursts pipes,” Baylor coach Scott Drew said. “And obviously it didn’t burst ours tonight.”

Drew was very nearly placed in an uncomfortable circumstance today at Lucas Oil Stadium. If Oral Roberts — which lost to Arkansas, 72-70, when a potential 3-pointer from Max Abmas ticked off the rim at the buzzer — had advanced, it would have been more than a biblical David and Goliath meeting of the two Baptist schools. Oral Roberts coach Paul Mills spent 17 seasons as an assistant under Drew, who said such a matchup would not be fun.

While Arkansas — which rallied from 12 points behind in the second half — and Oral Roberts played a thriller, and Villanova and Baylor slugged it out, there was little beauty to be found in the first game of the day: Oregon State’s 65-58 win over Loyola-Chicago.

The Beavers, though, were not troubled by aesthetics.

Ethan Thompson scored 22 points to lead Oregon State, which continued its unlikely run into a regional final for the first time since 1982. Picked to finish last in the Pac-12 at the start of the season, the Beavers will play Houston, which cooled off Buddy Boeheim and Syracuse, 62-46.

Boeheim, who scored 55 points combined in Orange wins over San Diego State and West Virginia, could manage just 12 against the tenacious Houston defense, which held him to 3 of 13 shooting. The Cougars, seeded second, have not been this far since the last of three consecutive trips to the Final Four in 1984.

Nevertheless, the bracket opposite Gonzaga, which was unbeaten going into Sunday’s game against Creighton, appears open for the Bears (25-2), who have been to three regional finals in the last 12 years but never to a Final Four.

For much of Saturday afternoon, Baylor’s hopes of getting there were very much in jeopardy.

Villanova, which had won two of the last four national titles, had reasonable designs on another until Gillespie tore a knee ligament three weeks ago. The Wildcats (18-7) lost three of their final four games before the tournament and were seen by many as an early upset candidate. But they regrouped behind sophomore forward Jeremiah Robinson-Earl and eased into the second weekend with convincing wins over Winthrop and North Texas.

Still, it appeared on paper to be a dreadful matchup for Villanova. It had the worst 3-point shooting defense of the remaining 16 teams in the tournament, and Baylor — led by its three-guard trio of Jared Butler, Davion Mitchell and MaCio Teague — were the nation’s best 3-point shooting team, making 41.5% of their shots behind the arc.

But Villanova threw a soft zone press at Baylor at times and when the Bears did get into their offense, the Wildcats toggled between zone and man-to-man defenses in the half court. It left the Bears befuddled. They made just 3 of 19 3-pointers.

At the other end of the court, though Robinson-Earl was held to a modest 8 points and 12 rebounds, the Wildcats threatened Baylor with slick interior passing and the ability around the rim of Jermaine Samuels, who had 16 points, and Justin Moore, who added 15.

And when Villanova’s Brandon Slater blew past Jonathan Tchamwa Tchatchoua on the wing and dunked over 6-foot-9 Matthew Mayer, it put Villanova ahead by 39-33.

Rather than deflate the Bears, the dunk seemed to inspire them.

They amped up the defensive pressure, harassing ballhandlers and crowding passing lanes.

Once Baylor got the ball, its guards began to get to the rim. With the score tied at 41, the Bears forced three consecutive turnovers, which led to three consecutive layups, the final one a spinning drive by Mayer. Sophomore guard Adam Flagler came off the bench to score 16 points for Baylor.

In all, Villanova, whose 8.8 turnovers per game were the fewest in the nation, nearly doubled that total with 16, one shy of their season high. Baylor had six of its eight steals in the second half.

“We knew if we wanted to win we had to turn them over,” said Mitchell, who acknowledged Gillespie’s absence deprived the Wildcats of a ballhandler who could break down a defense off the dribble. Gillespie scored 27 points against Baylor last season.

“We had to make them feel uncomfortable,” he added. “They’re a really fundamental team. They don’t turn the ball over. They’re No. 1 in the country in not turning the ball over. For us to win, we had to get them out of their comfort zone.”

Baylor has established itself as one of the better programs in the country, breaking Kansas’ stranglehold on the Big 12 last season and winning the regular-season title again this season. All that’s left for the Bears is to reach a Final Four, which they are now on the brink of doing.

“If we wanted the best team to advance, we’d do what the NBA does, play four out of seven and you’d get that,” Drew said. “But that’s why it’s March Madness.”

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