By John Shellenberger
Baylor Bear Foundation
In 2013, a small Atlantic Sun Conference team captured the nation's attention with a pair of huge upsets in becoming the first 15 seed to reach the NCAA Tournament's Sweet 16. An overnight sensation, Florida Gulf Coast became known as Dunk City.
The Baylor men (3-0) must be familiar with that moniker, because they began Friday night's game with a clear-cut plan to not let anyoje close to the paint. And for the first few minutes of their 81-72 win over the Dunk City Eagles, it worked.
Florida Gulf Coast initially attempted to shoot around Baylor's zone defense, hitting 3-of-9 inside the arc and just 2-for-6 outside of it. The biggest problem, literally, was the Bears' 7-foot enforcer, junior center Jo Lual-Acuil, who has posted 16 blocks through the first three games.
"We feel good when they go inside right now," Baylor coach Scott Drew said. "As long as Jo's there, I think on some of our ball-screen defense we didn't get to where we needed to early enough. But, coming into this game, we know how tough of a game this was going to be for us, especially early in the season."
Not to be bullied, the Eagles (1-2) rallied behind guard Christian Terrell's perfect 6-for-6 early shooting that knotted the game at 24-24 at the 6:35 mark.
"We were just in a zone, and they got hot, especially (Terrell) with three (3-pointers) in a row. It happens. We knew he could get hot," Baylor junior point guard Manu Lecomte said. "They win 25 games every year to go to the tournament. They shot the ball very well today. But, we came back well."
Kick-starting a 12-0 run, Lual-Acuil pinned FGC guard Brandon Goodwin's layup, which went the other way for an and-one layup and free throw by Johnathan Motley. Al Freeman chipped in seven points, along with a dunk by Lual-Acuil, to give the Bears a 36-24 lead.
The game turned into a free-throw shooting contest over the last few minutes of the first half, with the Bears taking a 42-32 lead into the locker room.
FGC came out firing at the start of the second half, going on a 9-4 run in the opening two minutes. The Eagles' Zach Johnson, scoreless in the first half, drained a 3-pointer that pulled his team within two points of the Bears, 50-48.
"That's twice in a row that we've come out with 10-point leads and them evaporate," Drew said. "Defensively, we thought we were sluggish coming out against Oregon in the zone. So, we just said, let's come out in man and get them going. I think they made their first seven shots, so that didn't work, either."
Another trey by Johnson gave the Eagles the lead for a brief moment. But, a slick move by junior forward Terry Maston turned into a three-point play and quick knotted the game again at 58-58.
Florida Gulf Coast refused to go away, knocking down 10-of-19 from outside the arc and keeping it close until the last minute and a half.
"We expected a dogfight, for sure," junior guard Al Freeman said. "They've played a lot of high-major games. Playing against high-level teams isn't anything new for them. They went to the (NCAA) tournament last year. They have experienced guys, and they weren't going to come in here and back down or fold when adversity hit them. They weren't going to go anywhere."
After exchanging blow-for-blow, the Bears finally regained the lead for good at 68-67 and went on a late 13-5 run to put the game away, most of it coming from the free-throw line. Baylor was a sizzling 87 percent from the line, hitting 27-of-31, and beat a third straight team that's projected to make the NCAA Tournament field.
"I think this was really good for our team, because we needed a close game before we go to Atlantis," Drew said of the Battle 4 Atlantis tournament that begins Wednesday in the Bahamas. "Not that I wanted to have one, but you're going to have a lot of close games. And you want to have some earlier in the season to get used to things, because I expect in Atlantis we'll have a lot of close games."
Friday's game was a designated mainland game for Battle 4 Atlantis, with the actual bracketed tournament beginning Wednesday when the Bears face VCU (3-0) at 1:30 p.m. in a game that will be televised by ESPN2.