Sixth-ranked Baylor played its first close game of the season Thursday when it carved out a 69-61 win over VCU.
The Bears may get another close shave Friday morning when they face Michigan State in the championship game of the Battle 4 Atlantis in Paradise Island, Bahamas.
Baylor (6-0) will bid for its 31st straight nonconference win against an opponent that has won its two games in the Bahamas by a total of six points. After nipping Loyola Chicago 63-61 on Wednesday, the Spartans (5-1) scored five straight points — all at the line — in the last 30.3 seconds Thursday to stop No. 22 UConn 64-60.
The manner in which Michigan State won — blowing a 14-point, first-half lead and trailing by seven with less than five minutes left before rallying — left veteran coach Tom Izzo feeling as if his team might head places.
“There’s defining moments in every season, and it’s kind of early,” he said. “But when you went through a year like we went through last year … we just beat a hell of a team. I felt like we played really good, too, so I’m going to give us credit in a lot of ways.”
It certainly looked much more like a standard Izzo team than last winter. The Spartans spent the first half out-toughing a team that prides itself on toughness. And after the Huskies responded with a strong first 15 minutes in the second half, Michigan State picked up the pieces and outplayed them in the endgame.
“I think it’s a testament to our team and just never giving up, really,” said Malik Hall, who canned two critical foul shots with 17.2 seconds left for a 63-60 edge. “Towards the end of the game, we just made those winning plays and we got done what we needed to.”
So did Baylor in its semifinal victory. The Bears committed 18 turnovers and settled for season lows in points and shooting percentage, but they got 14 second-half points from freshman forward Kendall Brown to avoid the upset.
Baylor coach Scott Drew pointed to his team’s 15-3 advantage in second-chance points and a 42-33 margin in rebounding as the differences.
“We knew it was going to be a really good game where it’s an NCAA Tournament kind of feel,” he said. “Credit our guys for doing a great job on the glass. I thought our front line did a great job.”
Matthew Mayer scored a team-high 15 for the Bears, canning 3 of 5 3-point attempts. Baylor also got 13 points off the bench from Jonathan Tchamwa Tchatchoua, who made 6 of 8 shots.
LJ Cryer is averaging a team-high 15.8 ppg and sinking 50 percent of his 3-point tries, while Brown (14 ppg) and Mayer (11.8) are also in double figures. Despite their struggles Thursday, the Bears are averaging 83 points per game and connecting on 47.7 percent of their field-goal attempts.
Drew said rebounding would be a key to the tournament final.
“It will be a grown man’s game,” he said.
–Field Level Media