Scott Drew has led the Bears to the Round of 16 three times since they arrived in Waco, Texas, in 2003, most recently in 2012. But in its previous two appearances, Baylor faced the eventual national champion and fell a step short of the Final Four.
On Monday night, the Bears were finally able to withstand a second Arkansas rebound and pull out an 81-72 victory.
I was afraid to stay up so late, Drew said. But it’s still pure joy, excitement. Obviously tired because it’s late. And it was an emotional match. But again, our guys have a chance to cut down the net and celebrate, not much better than they did in March.
Baylor looked like it could take a hit on Monday night. The Bears scored the first seven points and led by as many as 18 in the first half. But Arkansas, which came back from a double-digit deficit in each of its first three games in the NCAA Tournament, fought its way back to halftime trailing by just eight points.
Baylor extended the lead back to double digits in the second half, but the Razorbacks stayed in the game. They cut the lead to four points twice, once after a run by Moses Moody at 9:34 and again after two free throws by Moody at 7:34. Arkansas wasn’t getting any closer.
Baylor left the door open, but a six-minute scoring drought for Arkansas allowed the Bears to keep the Razorbacks at bay. Masio Teague sealed the victory with back-to-back three-point shots in the final five minutes.
My teammates were still looking for me. Teague said to thank the boys for their confidence in me. We were already on fire. This is not the first time we’ve been hit by a fire.
Teague finished with 22 points to lead Baylor, while Jared Butler added 14 points and five assists, and Davion Mitchell shook off his foul trouble and finished with 12 points and six assists. Mitchell also held Moody, one of the best freshmen in the country, and held him to 2-for-10 with pitching.
I think he’s the best defender in the country, Drew said of Mitchell. We call it off-night because people don’t usually do it all night. It’s a nightmare to get the ball up. And he sets the tone for our defense.
It’s a wheelbarrow. Anyone can see how it works. This makes everyone else work. So he brings that energy, and he has incredible speed. You could see that against their fall, their pressure, it’s very hard to keep ahead of them. Incredible skill and divine speed.
Drew took over a scandal-plagued program when he was hired by Valparaiso in 2003. Baylor forward Patrick Dennehy was killed in an altercation with teammate Carlton Dotson, and the subsequent investigation revealed that then-head coach Dave Bliss tried to avoid NCAA violations by claiming Dennehy was selling drugs to pay his tuition. Further investigation by the NCAA revealed a series of serious violations by Bliss, who later resigned and was sentenced to a 10-year suspension by the NCAA.
Baylor received probation, a huge suspension of scholarships and a ban on non-conference play during the 2005-2006 season.
Just two years after the non-conference ban, Drew Baylor invited the Bears to the NCAA Tournament for the first time in 20 years – and the Bears have missed it just four times since.
I felt compelled to come here, Drew said. I really believed in the vision of the school, the vision of the president and the administrators at the time, and that they wanted Baylor to continue to grow and become. And I wanted to be a part of it. Of course, when you started the season and discovered that most of the team is made up of walkers and most of them are no taller than 6 feet, you realized that it might be harder than you first thought. But the goal, of course, has always been to build a program that can be consistently competitive and play in March.
Last season seemed like their best chance to end the Final Four drought. The Bears started with 24 wins in 25 games before faltering a bit late in the season. But they were still in the running for first place until the coronavirus pandemic caused the NCAA tournament to be cancelled.
It’s nice that the boys were able to celebrate, especially after last year when we were about to become the first No. 1 team in school history and didn’t make the NCAA tournament, Drew said.
KOVID-19 nearly derailed Baylor’s dream season for the second time this season, and the Bears were forced to take three weeks off in February. The 17-0 record before the break was quickly tarnished by a 13-point loss at Kansas in the second game. Then Baylor lost again in the Big 12 Tournament semifinals, and those entering the NCAA Tournament wondered if the Bears could recapture the lead they had built in the first three months of the season.
I don’t think we ever lost faith, Tig said. When we lost to Kansas, we had to lose. Then we lost… but we felt we were not in the best of shape. We felt like we needed to fix some things, fix some things in the future. We felt we would get better as the season went on, and we didn’t want to peak in January. We want to reach the top at a time when we are only at the top. We want to keep improving from last week.
After a lull between the Big 12 tournament and the NCAA tournament, Baylor won over Hartford, Wisconsin, Villanova and Arkansas on Monday.
As a coach, I wanted to believe we’d be back, yes, but there’s no book. So you don’t know for sure. Lose a game and you’re out, Drew said. I’m glad we’re playing, and I think we’re getting better and better.