By Jerry Hill
Baylor Bear Foundation
KANSAS CITY, Mo. - Hopefully the NCAA Tournament selection committee stayed tuned in for the last two minutes of Friday's Big 12 Championship semifinal.
Throwing a scare into No. 1-ranked Kansas, the 22nd-ranked Baylor Bears nearly pulled off a miraculous comeback, rallying from a 16-point deficit to make it a three-point game with 5.4 seconds left.
But the Jayhawks (29-4) avoided a total collapse, holding on for a 70-66 victory and advancing to the tournament championship game for the 12th time.
"The nightmare would be if we lost, so this was just a bad dream," said KU coach Bill Self, who cleared his bench at the 1:51 mark and then put his starters back in when the lead was whittled to seven with 25 seconds left. "We didn't finish the game at all. And you guys can easily see how important it is to have both of those little ballhandlers in the game for us."
Baylor senior point guard Lester Medford said the late comeback "just shows how much heart this team has and how much fight we have."
"I think it gives us more confidence that we're never out of a game," said sophomore guard Al Freeman, who finished with a team-high 14 points and drained a 3-pointer that pulled the Bears (22-11) back within four with 23 seconds left. "Everybody has to be bought in and know that it's a 40-minute game. It's not a 38-minute game, not a 37-minute game, it's a 40-minute game."
Senior All-American forward Perry Ellis paced four double-figure scorers for Kansas, scoring eight points in the first 2 ½ minutes of the second half and finishing with a game-high 20 points. Sophomore point guard Devonte' Graham had 14 points, eight assists and four steals, and Wayne Selden Jr. provided the highlight-reel moment of the night with a monster dunk over Ishmail Wainright.
"It's got to be a (ESPN SportsCenter) Top 10, at least No. 2 or No. 1," Graham said of the second-half dunk, when Wainright fouled out trying to take a charge. "(It was a) crazy athletic play. That gave us a little spark."
Using alley-oop passes as a consistent weapon, Kansas had seven dunks overall, but none quite as impressive as Selden's.
"The dunk gets the crowd hyped, but it's just two points and it's not the end of the game," Freeman said. "They hit big shots and had big transition dunks, but we know that we can come back and make our own big plays and go on a run ourselves."
Baylor, losing to Kansas for the third time this season and second year in a row in the Big 12 tournament semifinals, got 13 points and nine rebounds from senior forward Rico Gathers off the bench and 11 points, seven boards and four steals from sophomore Johnathan Motley.
Despite losing four of its last six - all to top-10 teams - the Bears are expected to receive an at-large bid and advance to the NCAA Tournament for the sixth time in nine years and 10th overall. Selections will be announced at 6 p.m. Sunday on CBS.
"Last year, we didn't like how it ended," Baylor coach Scott Drew said of the Bears' 57-56 loss to 14th-seeded Georgia State. "We had had a lot of success in the tournament, and that was the first time we really got stung. I know the returning players and coaches are motivated to make sure we do better."
Blown out on the road earlier this season at Kansas, the Bears didn't let the largely partisan Jayhawk crowd affect them this time, going toe-to-toe with the team that should be the NCAA Tournament's overall No. 1 seed.
Graham gave KU its largest lead of the half, 18-13, with a dunk off an alley-oop feed from Selden. But the Jayhawks scored just three points in the last 6 ½ minutes and missed eight of their last nine shots.
Closing the half on a 10-3 run, Baylor got buckets from Gathers, Freeman and Terry Maston and then went into the locker room with a 23-21 lead when freshman Jake Lindsey drained a buzzer-beating 3-pointer for the second straight day.
Unlike the day before, the momentum didn't carry over to the second half. With Ellis hitting two quick buckets and going 4-for-4 from the line, the Jayhawks took the lead for good.
"Perry was passive in the first half. We had four lobs that we had bad passes or guys not jumping to go get `em, and he was guilty on two of them," Self said. "But the second half, we played through him the first four or five possessions. When we got the lead, it felt comfortable gain. That was important to get the lead back."
The Bears stayed close for the first five minutes, with Gathers scoring on three straight possessions and cutting the deficit to 34-32. But Kansas answered with a 12-1 run and pushed it to a 46-33 lead on Selden's posterizing dunk on Wainright and the follow free throw with 10:52 left.
Kansas seemed to put the game away, going up 64-48 when Jamari Traylor made one of two free throws. That's when Self took out his remaining starters and left it to the bench.
"I had a guy in here yesterday ask me . . . why don't you play your bench?" Self said. "I did, and it didn't work out great. So much for listening to the media. I wanted to leave them all in here there, in all honesty, because I wanted them to feel some pressure. . . . I know it's embarrassing to them when you have to put your starters back in, but they'll remember that hopefully."
Medford, who hit just one of his first eight shots, drained two 3-pointers in an unbelievable 18-5 run that brought the Bears back within three even after the Kansas starters returned to the floor. But in the end, 13 turnovers, 11 missed free throws (14-of-25) and the Jayhawks' 44-32 edge on the boards were too much to overcome.
"The game's not over until the horn sounds," Medford said. "This just gets us prepared for the NCAA Tournament, for close games, because we've been in a lot of close games. We came up on the wrong side tonight, but hopefully in the NCAA Tournament we'll come up on the winning side."
Kansas advances to face second-seeded and ninth-ranked West Virginia (26-7) in Saturday's 5 p.m. championship game. The Mountaineers stunned sixth-ranked Oklahoma, 69-67, when a halfcourt shot by Buddy Hield was waved off at the end of the game.