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The most accurate 3-point shooting team in college basketball couldn’t hit water from the deck of a ship. Baylor misfired on 16 of its 19 attempts from behind the arc on Saturday in its Sweet 16 matchup against Villanova.
In most instances, that’s a recipe for NCAA tournament heartbreak. In this case, it was merely another reminder of how multitalented and mentally tough Baylor is. These Bears can find ways to win even when the pressure is rising and their shots aren’t falling.
Fueled by ferocious on-ball defense and newfound aggressiveness attacking the rim, Baylor survived Villanova’s spirited upset bid. The top-seeded Bears fought back from a seven-point halftime deficit and pulled away for a 62-51 victory to clinch their third appearance in the Elite Eight since 2010.
Baylor’s reversal of fortune began when it entered the halftime locker room shooting just 2 of 12 from behind the arc. Scott Drew urged his team to stop settling for pull-up 3-pointers and to look to get into the paint off the dribble.
“Going into halftime, coach told us we can get to the paint anytime we want,” Baylor guard Davion Mitchell said. “All our missed threes were off the dribble. We were basically bailing them out and not making them guard.”
From Mitchell, to Jared Butler, to Macio Teague, to Matthew Mayer, all of Baylor’s perimeter weapons appeared to buy into the change of mindset. When they found a matchup they liked, they attacked it, often with good results.
Villanova was still clinging to a two-point lead midway through the second half when Baylor ratcheted its defensive intensity up a few notches. What followed was a game-changing 8-0 Bears surge during which the normally poised Wildcats turned the ball over six times in less than four minutes.
The swarming on-ball defense of Mitchell and the absence of Villanova’s star point guard Collin Gillespie were the two primary culprits. The frazzled Wildcats at one point went five straight possessions without so much as a shot attempt, a haymaker from which they never really recovered.
“We knew if we wanted to win we had to turn them over and make them feel uncomfortable,” Mitchell said. “For us to win we had to get them out of their comfort zone, and I think we did a really good job of that.”
For most of this season, Baylor was considered one of the two biggest threats to capture the national title, 1B to Gonzaga’s 1A. The Bears slipped a bit defensively after a lengthy February COVID-19 pause, but their performance in the NCAA tournament thus far suggests they’re back to where they were earlier in the season when they tossing aside good teams with startling ease.
In the round of 64, they throttled overmatched Hartford. In the round of 32, they swatted aside a Wisconsin team ranked in the KenPom top 15.
Then Saturday, they found a second-half gear that a battle-tested Villanova team couldn’t match — and they did it on a night when their jump shots abandoned them.
What that suggests is that Baylor is as strong a favorite to come out of its half of the bracket as Gonzaga is from the other side.
The Bears’ path to their first Final Four since 1950 goes through Oral Roberts or Arkansas. In either case, they’ll be favored.
Potential national semifinal opponents include Houston, Syracuse and Oregon State. The Cougars are formidable on the offensive glass, the Orange are peaking in March and the Beavers have some kind of voodoo hex on the rest of the field, but once again those are opponents that Baylor will rightly believe it should beat.
And if the Bears get down — or their shots are misfiring — they have Saturday’s experience to look back on.
“When you’re down seven at halftime and it’s win or go home, sometimes pressure bursts pipes,” Drew said. “Obviously it didn’t burst ours tonight.”
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