By Jerry Hill
Baylor Bear Foundation
TULSA, Okla. - With Manu Lecomte missing all five of his first-half shots, Baylor senior forward Ishmail Wainright told him in no uncertain terms, "Don't worry about all that, you're the best shooter in the country. The next one's falling."
As it turned out, the next one didn't fall.
But, the junior point guard drained a 3-pointer and follow free throw with 4:40 left in the game and scored eight points in a 45-second span to help the third-seeded Bears (27-7) advance to the Sweet 16 in New York with an 82-78 win over 11th-seeded USC Sunday night at the BOK Center.
"I just had to pick it up," said Lecomte, who hit four of his last five shots to finish with 12 points, five assists and no turnovers. "I was struggling a little bit in the first half, so I had to pick it up. My teammates and my coach did a great job - they just kept believing in me. They kept me in the game. They trusted me with the ball in my hands, so I just had to go out and make plays."
USC, which had rallied from 17- and 12-point deficits, respectively, in beating Providence and SMU, trailed by as many as 10 in the first half and was down 36-31 at the break. But, the Trojans (26-10) just kept coming, as they have all year long.
"I actually joked with (USC coach Andy Enfield). I said, `Do you want to be up at halftime?''' said Baylor coach Scott Drew, whose team is making its fourth trip to the Sweet 16 in eight years and first since 2014. "He said, `No, no, we like being down.' We knew it was going to come down to the last couple minutes of the game - who could make the key defensive stops - and I thought we really did a better job executing down the stretch when it mattered the most."
With losses by top-seeded Villanova and No. 2 seed Duke over the last two days, Baylor is now the highest-seeded team still alive in the East Region. The Bears will face seventh-seeded South Carolina (24-10) at 6:29 p.m. CDT Friday at Madison Square Garden, with fourth-seeded Florida (26-8) facing No. 8 seed Wisconsin (27-9) in the other region semifinal.
"As a kid, you dream about moments like this," said sophomore guard King McClure, who hit four first-half 3-pointers and finished with a career-high 17 points. "And for it to be here is a blessing. We don't take it for granted. And like we said in the locker room, we're not done, we have more work to do."
Baylor got 19 points apiece from Johnathan Motley and Terry Maston, but the 6-foot-10 Motley played just 71 seconds in the last eight-plus minutes and fouled out at the 1:39 mark on a charge call that would have given the Bears an eight-point lead.
With Motley on the bench for most of the closing stretch and the Bears trailing by four when he picked up his fourth foul, Drew went with a smaller lineup that had the 6-5 Wainright at power forward, Maston at the other inside spot and three guards.
"Have we used that at all this year?" Drew asked his players during the postgame press conference. "I guess we were saving it."
Enfield said the Bears "relied on some other people," with Motley out of the game, "and they stepped up. . . . When your leading scorer goes out, it's an opportunity for other players sometimes to score the ball, and they did."
After McClure and the Trojans' Jordan McLaughlin traded 3-pointers, Jake Lindsey hit a pair of free throws and then fed Maston for a jumper that tied it up at 63-63 with 6:38 left on the clock.
Trading bucket for bucket, USC twice regained the lead, the last time coming on a pair of free throws by De' Anthony Melton.
At that point, the Trojans were shooting a sizzling 68.4 percent from the floor in the second half (13-of-19) and were showing no signs of cooling off anytime soon.
That's when Lecomte stepped in and took over a game that he had had little to no impact on for the first 35 minutes. "Manu struggled early, but we knew he had that dog-like mentality in him," Lindsey said.
Wainright penetrated and dished back out to Lecomte at the top of the key for a 3-pointer that was the seventh and last lead change of the game. Fouled by Elijah Stewart on the arm, Lecomte completed the rare four-point play and gave the Bears a 69-67 lead.
"It was a great drive by Ish," he said. "I was wide open, top of the key, just a great pass by Ish."
Finishing off his personal 8-0 run, Lecomte hit a pair of free throws after a steal, then drove inside for a layup that made it 73-67.
USC's Chimezie Metu answered with a three-point play that got it back to a one-possession game, but the Trojans missed their last six shots from outside the arc and couldn't ever get closer, even with Motley on the bench.
"It was tough, because I knew my teammates wanted me out there and I wanted to be out there," said Motley, who was 9-of-12 from the floor and posted his 15th double-double of the season with 19 points and 10 rebounds. "And I felt like with me out there, we had a good chance to win. They were just coming up and telling me, `Man, we got you, we got it, we got it. We're going to finish this game.' . . . I have complete trust in them, and they got it done for me."
Metu did get the Trojans back to within 78-76 on a powerful dunk with 21.4 seconds left. But, Wainright closed the door with a pair of free throws on the other end as USC ran out of time and chances.
"That's what makes us a great team," Drew said. "If Mot fouls out, Ish had foul trouble in the first half, it's not like we just have one player or two players. We have a team. And all season long, they've put the team first. It's allowed them to sacrifice. And not every team does that, because it's hard to one game not play many minutes and then next game be the star."
Now, after playing in NIT championship games in 2009 and 2013 at Madison Square Garden, the Bears are headed back to New York. And as they said, "We're not done."
"We're playing for more," Wainright said, "because we want to cut down nets. I've never cut down nets. The only net I cut down was at my house, to change it."