By Jerry Hill
Baylor Bear Foundation
Sam Houston State's plan to pack its defense inside and make the 23rd-ranked Baylor Bears beat them from outside backfired on the Bearkats.
"The thing they did tonight that I told our guys we were going to let them do is shoot 3's," said Sam Houston coach Jason Hooten, whose team fell to 5-4. "I told the kids that's on me. With their size and length, I just didn't think we could match up inside all night long."
Coming off consecutive losses to top-25 teams, Baylor had its inside-out game working to perfection. Six players scored in double figures, led by 7-footer Jo Lual-Acuil Jr. with 15 points and 11 boards and freshman forward Tristan Clark with 14 points, eight boards and two blocks.
"We really tried to make a conscious effort to shoot the 3, but try to get the ball inside first," said Baylor coach Scott Drew, whose team has won 31 straight regular-season games against unranked teams. "If it went outside, that's not a problem. But in games like this, you can forget about the inside. And with Jo and Tristan, you wanted to make sure that you got them touches."
The Bears (6-2) were also the deepest they've been all year, with redshirt freshman guard Tyson Jolly playing 17 minutes and getting five rebounds, four assists and two blocks in 17 minutes off the bench. Junior walk-on forward Jonathan Davis and redshirt freshman Obim Okeke off the football team also got into the game, the first time this year Drew has gone 10 players deep.
"The biggest thing is having eight (scholarship) players in that rotation allows you to really be more active defensively," Drew said. "We had 36 deflections, our previous high was 24. Just guys being fresher and being able to play out there definitely helps you with that. And then, if you're more active and you get more deflections and stops, it helps you with transition offense."
Jolly redshirted last season and sat out the first six games this year before getting in for just three minutes in Saturday's 69-62 loss to then-No. 8 Wichita State.
"It kind of shocked me. I didn't think I'd play that much today," he said. "But, my teammates carried me. They helped me on defense and offense. They just gave me confidence, and it was easy from that point on. . . . It feels great to be back. It's a wonderful feeling."
For Okeke, a 6-0, 225-pound running back on the football team, this was his first game action on the basketball court since helping Bishop Gorman High School win the Nevada state championship in 2014. He had a steal at the end that led to a Clark layup.
"We asked him if he knew what defense we were in. And he said, `Yeah,''' Drew said. "And he went in and he guarded the ball, no matter where it got passed. In our defense, you don't have to guard all five guys. We can keep you on one."
Baylor's defense was effective, holding the Bearkats to 35 percent shooting overall (22-of-63) and just 19.2 percent from 3-point range (5-of-26). They came in shooting right at 35 percent from outside the arc and averaging better than 10 3-pointers made per game.
"When you play a team that's very talented and long and athletic and bigger than you are, and you come into their place, you've got to make 3-pointers if you want to pull the upset," Hooten said. "We just didn't make them. If we shoot 10-of-26, it's a totally different game, especially in the first half. We went through that stretch where we just couldn't buy a basket."
The Bears used a 12-0 run midway through the first half to go up 24-11 on a 3-pointer by redshirt freshman forward Mark Vital and stretched it to 40-19 late in the first half before Sam Houston scored six unanswered points in the last 2.9 seconds.
John Dewey III hit all three free throws after getting fouled by Vital, then Albert Almanza hit a buzzer-beating trey after a Baylor turnover gave the Bearkats the ball back under their own basket.
"Obviously disappointed with how we finished the first half," Drew said. "When you get separation, you want to keep that. This is college basketball, and each and every night you look on the (ESPN) ticker and you're going to see an upset. . . . In the beginning of the second half, we really wanted to come out intense and we wanted to make sure we didn't carry over that momentum."
Baylor's inside duo of Lual-Acuil and Clark combined to hit 10-of-16 from the floor and score 29 points with 19 rebounds. Lecomte was 4-of-10 from outside the arc for all 12 of his points, Omot scored 15 and nailed 3-of-6 from 3-point range, and Vital and Lindsey scored 11 apiece.
Despite a distinct size advantage, particularly at the inside positions, the Bears got outrebounded, 41-37, and only scored four more points in the paint (36-32) than the Bearkats.
"I feel collectively, we need to rebound better," said Lual-Acuil, who recorded his fourth double-double of the season and seventh of his career. "They outrebounded us tonight, so that comes down to our front line. Me and Tristan need to do a better job, starting with us. But, as a team, we need to rebound better collectively and block out."
Baylor will face Randall University (4-8), formerly Hillsdale Free Will Baptist College, at 6 p.m. Saturday at Abrams Gym on the Fort Hood army base. The Bears close out pre-conference with home games against Texas Southern, Savannah State and Southern in a stretch of seven days before opening league play Dec. 29 at Texas Tech.