By John Shellenberger
Baylor Bear Foundation
Eight days after an incredible comeback win over No. 10 Louisville, the ninth-ranked Baylor men faced another test against a highly ranked opponent Saturday afternoon at the Ferrell Center.
On another big-time stage, this time against No. 7 Xavier, the Bears had a chance to prove their victories over No. 24 Michigan State, VCU, Louisville and No. 4 Oregon were no fluke.
Boy, did they prove it.
Playing in front of a loud and rowdy Ferrell Center crowd of 9,684, the Bears (8-0) traded blow for blow, shot for shot with Xavier, defeating the Musketeers, 76-61. Don't let the score fool you, though, by no means was this a blowout.
Perhaps coming out a little too excited, Baylor struggled in the early going, falling behind 21-12. Xavier's guards came out ready to play, especially Trevon Bluiett, who hit six 3-pointers and finished with a team-high 23 points.
Bluiett hit three treys in the first 5 ½ minutes to help Xavier jump out to the early lead.
"I think we had to settle down a little bit," head coach Scott Drew said. "This is the best crowd we've had, and it gave us a lot of energy and probably too hyped to be honest. (We) made some mental mistakes, didn't communicate as well with each other. And I think once we settled down, took a breath, had a couple of timeouts, we were able to get back to playing our style of basketball."
Baylor's style of basketball must be centered on superb defense and crisp passing, because that's exactly what defined the Bears' play the rest of the game.
Following junior guard Manu Lecomte's steal and deep field goal, the Bears woke up, igniting the crowd as well.
Even with a four-guard lineup, the Musketeers outrebounded the Bears by 10 in the first half, 26-16, and took a 34-31 lead into the locker room.
Then, the Bears did what they have done all season long, something that is starting to define this season. They played an unbelievable second half.
Going on an 11-1 run sparked by sophomore guard Jake Lindsey's steals, Lecomte 3-pointers and a crowd-stirring alley-oop pass from Wainright to Jo Lual-Acuil, the Bears took a 61-52 lead that was too much for Xavier to overcome.
"We just had to get in rhythm," said Lecomte, who hit 6-of-9 from 3-point range and finished with a game-high 24 points. "We struggled a little bit in the beginning. We just kept shooting, kept finding each other. That's what we're all about. We're all-in, we've just got to keep finding each other."
Once they found their rhythm, there was nothing stopping the Bears. Besides Lecomte, Johnathan Motley had 17 points and eight rebounds, Lual-Acuil added 12 points and six blocks and Freeman chipped in with 10 points.
"Yeah, today (the basket) felt pretty big," Lecomte said. "I had a good game shooting. I just had to keep shooting. That's what I do."
While it was Lecomte's clutch 3-pointers that certainly iced the game, it was Baylor's big men that were able to keep Xavier off-balance in the second half.
The Musketeers got just 13 second-chance points off their 18 offensive rebounds, something that Xavier head coach Chris Mack thought was "almost physically impossible to do when you get 18 offensive rebounds."
"(Lual-Acuil and Motley) did alter several shots at the rim, obviously blocked some," Drew said. "At the end of the day, when you know that you have that behind you, it allows the guards to press the ball a little bit more, because if they get beat, there's a chance that at least the mistake will be erased. And that's important when you've got great shooters like they have."
Baylor gets a break for final exams, getting the next 10 days off before hosting Southern University at 6 p.m. Dec. 14. Drew emphasized the importance of winning a big game, especially against a top-10 opponent before a break.
"It's great. You don't want to go on a long break with a bad taste in your mouth," he said. "It's nice, because now after traveling and what-not, a couple have been sick, so they can get healthy."
If the team that beat Xavier by 15 wasn't healthy, look out the rest of the way. It makes them beating three top-10 teams in the same season for the first time in program history even more impressive.