ATLANTA – Snuffing out hope is the cruelest torture of all.
In the opening minutes of the South Regional final Sunday, Kentucky gave Baylor the tiniest of moments to dream, allowing the Bears to reel off an 8-0 run to get out to a 10-5 lead. Baylor was owning the boards and burying both dunks and long-range jumpers. Just for an instant, the Bears' future was as bright as their neon shoes.
Then the hammer dropped.
Led by Michael Kidd-Gilchrist, the Wildcats unfurled a beatdown for the ages, outscoring Baylor 35-8 in a 10-minute stretch and effectively ending the game before the end of the first half was even in sight.
"The goal was [to allow] no dunks," Baylor coach Scott Drew said. "That went out the window in about the first four seconds."
After its fast start, Baylor couldn't buy a basket, couldn't corral a rebound, couldn't contain the Wildcats in transition. Any one of those problems and they could have stayed in the game. All three combined? A 20-point halftime deficit against the best team in the tournament might have been getting off easy.
"Early in the game, guys were forcing it," Bears guard Brady Heslip said. "When you're going up against those trees in the middle, you can't force it. You have to stick your nose in there and make plays. ... The game comes out of defense and rebounding. We weren't doing either one."
As they filed off the court at halftime, the Bears looked dazed. Guard Pierre Jackson had the thousand-yard stare of a man who has just lost his life savings. Forward Anthony Jones' shoulders sagged like he was dragging kettle bells. And forward Quincy Acy, the heart and soul of this team, simply kept his head bowed.
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The loyal, neon-yellow Baylor fan base tried a few halfhearted "sic 'em"s, but nobody in yellow appeared ready to sic anything tougher than a yogurt cup.
Baylor's first-half stat sheet looked like a crime report: nine turnovers (three each by Perry Jones and Jackson), 32 percent shooting (8-for-25), one steal. The second half was better, but only by comparison.
After scoring just two points in the first 20 minutes, Perry Jones remembered that he's supposed to be a potential lottery pick and added another 15 points. Jackson also found his stroke, also canning 15 second-half points. Acy finished out his collegiate career with a 22-point, eight-rebound game.
But Baylor couldn't get the defensive stops it needed, and no player hit more than one 3-pointer. The Bears never hacked the deficit back into the single digits, and only closed to within 10 with seconds left in the game.
In short, Kentucky humiliated Baylor every way a basketball team can, ripping the ball from Jackson's hands, knocking Acy underneath the press table and keeping Jones a total non-factor. Heslip had as many fouls as points (four) and never came close to impacting the flow of the game the way he'd done in Baylor's earlier rounds.
This was just a good old-fashioned Kentucky whupping.
Kentucky fans now head to New Orleans on an unprecedented high, knowing their team has the ability to humiliate even top-10 squads. Baylor fans, on the other hand, must deal with the sobering reality of just how hard it is to climb that final stretch of the NCAA mountaintop.
As the final seconds ticked down, Baylor fans began a "Quin-cy A-cy" chant, celebrating the final game of the senior whose class had won 100 games.
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"Thank you guys for coming," Drew said as he walked off the court, waving to the fans. Anthony Jones draped an arm over Perry Jones' shoulders. Jackson gnawed at the front of his uniform. And Acy waved one last time to the Baylor faithful.
"It's one of those games that wasn't meant to be," Drew said afterward. "You want to play your best game on the biggest stage. But Kentucky's just too good."
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