By Jerry Hill
Baylor Bear Foundation
KANSAS CITY, Mo. - Running into a Kansas State team in desperate need of a win, the ninth-ranked Baylor Bears saw their Big 12 Championship run come to an abrupt end Thursday night.
The Wildcats (20-12), on the wrong side of the bubble going into the Big 12 tournament, shot a sizzling 65 percent in the second half and made eight free throws in the final minute to pull off a 70-64 quarterfinal victory before a Sprint Center crowd of 18,972.
"I knew they were going to come in with a lot of intensity," said Baylor coach Scott Drew, whose team lost in the quarterfinals for the first time in four years, "because this was a big game for them as far as the NCAA Tournament. And I thought they answered the bell and they won this game. They deserved it."
Sophomore guard Barry Brown, a 31 percent shooter from 3-point range, knocked down all four of his shots from outside the arc and even made a rare four-point play in racking up a game-high 21 points.
"You've got to credit them for making shots," Drew said. "This was really about our defense and their offense. Our defense wasn't great, but they still made shots. You foul a 3-point shooter, he's not supposed to make the shot, right?"
Before Thursday's game, ESPN analyst Joe Lunardi had the Bears projected as a No. 2 seed in the East Regional and playing the first two rounds in Tulsa, Okla. The loss could drop them down a line, possibly to a 3 seed, but "they look at the full body of work and there is no bad loss in the Big 12," Drew said.
"That's why we've been on the 2 line, 1 line, 3 line, whatever, because of our full body of work," said Drew, whose team has knocked off four top-10 teams for the first time in program history. "We'll take the positive, go home, get rest, get healthy, practice a little bit, and hopefully we'll play desperate and execute like Kansas State did come next week. Then, it's been a great thing for us."
Playing in his first game since re-injuring his sprained left ankle on Feb. 25 at Iowa State, junior point guard Manu Lecomte scored 13 points in 24 minutes, knocking down three from 3-point range. But, he was on the bench for the last three minutes, when the Bears rallied from an 11-point deficit and cut it to 64-60 with 51 seconds left.
"I wanted to keep him around 20 minutes," Drew said. "He was playing well, doing well and stepped on someone's foot or stubbed it a little bit. We saw him start to limp. And I know he wanted to stay in, but we obviously need him healthy for next week, so (trainer David Chandler) will make sure he's good to go."
With Baylor in desperation mode for those last three minutes, junior guard Al Freeman scored 11 of his team-high 16 points to at least make things interesting.
"I'm one of those guys that when I see one go in, I can get things rolling," said Freeman, who hit 4-of-7 from the floor and 4-of-4 from the line in the second half after missing four of his first five shots and scoring just three points in the first half.
Sophomore guard Jake Lindsey, who had a career-high 11 assists, said "Al did a great job."
"He was in the spots he needed to be in," Lindsey said. "He made the right reads of how his man was playing him, and I was able to get him the ball and he did a good job finishing. We could have had a little more poise in the last minute . . . been a little more aware of the situation."
Both teams struggled in a first half dominated by the defenses, going into the break deadlocked at 25-25. With the Wildcats missing five of their first six shots, Baylor jumped out to an 8-3 lead and went up 13-8 on a Lecomte trey eight minutes into the game.
K-State reeled off eight unanswered points during a stretch when Jo Lual-Acuil was hit with a technical foul and the Bears went through nearly a 4 ½-minute scoring drought. The lead changed hands four times in the last six minutes of the half, with Lindsey hitting a 3-pointer to put Baylor on top and Wesley Iwundu tying it back up with a layup.
"It's our conference . . . every game is close," said K-State coach Bruce Weber, whose team went from "first four out" to "last four in" on Lunardi's updated bracket projection. "I don't think people understand, nationwide, how tough the teams here are. You just saw what TCU did to Kansas today (85-82 upset). . . . We've just got so many good teams. Now, you've got to play them not only two times but a third time."
After the teams traded buckets in the first seven minuteof the second half, K-State took the lead for good on a dunk by Isaiah Maurice off a dish from Kamau Stokes.
"Defensively, when one is playing well, you've got to raise your level," Drew said. "I thought our attention to detail, our pick-and-roll (defense). . . one of the coaches had a heart attack on the bench, because it's the worst it's been and that's his bread-and-butter thing. And we will get better. Credit them for executing in it."
Baylor came from seven points down to get back within 40-37 on a pair of free throws by Nuni Omot. But, on the Wildcats' next possession, Brown buried a 3-pointer from the corner and hit the follow free throw to get it right back to a seven-point lead, and the Bears never got closer than four the rest of the way.
"I feel like it came from my teammates," said Brown, who finished one shy of his career-high. "We ran a couple of plays, and some of it was just like the and-one 3. Wes (Iwundu) was able to find me. But, I credit my teammates for getting me open, and I had to reward them by making the shot."
After K-State stretched its lead to 60-49 on a pair of free throws by D.J. Johnson, who had 13 points and seven rebounds, the Bears went on an 11-4 run and made it a four-point game, 64-60, on a Freeman 3-pointer.
Freeman would add a layup and two free throws down the stretch, but it wasn't enough to ever get Baylor over the hump.
"We know it's on us," Lecomte said. "K-State is a great team, they played a great game. But, it's on us. We didn't match their intensity at all today. They played with more heart and passion. Hopefully, we learn from that."
As of late Thursday, Lunardi still had Baylor as a 2 seed along with Oregon, Kentucky and Louisville, saying "I've learned not to put too much stock into what happens in these conference tournaments."
"We honestly don't care about what seed we're going to get," Lecomte said. "If you play like that, it won't matter. We've just got to get better. And whoever we play, we've got to bring our `A' game."