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By Daniel Hill
The Baylor Bears defeated the Providence Friars in the quarterfinals of the NIT 79-68 on Wednesday night to move on to the semifinals on Tuesday in New York City’s Madison Square Garden.
“When you’ve got a lot on the line like a chance to go to New York and play in a Final Four-type atmosphere at Madison Square Garden, you know that you don’t have to motivate as a coach,” head coach Scott Drew said. “Our guys were extremely excited all day long for this game and Providence really played well in that first half, and we couldn’t stop them and in the second half I thought we did a much better job defensively. The big thing was that we took care of the ball all game with 19 assists and only five turnovers. Pierre Jackson had 13 assists and zero turnovers. I think everybody wants a point guard who can play a game like that and he was outstanding.”
Junior forward Cory Jefferson scored the first points of the game with two free throws and then Providence scored eight straight points, much in part to three layups from senior guard Vincent Council.
Jefferson was the game’s leading scorer with 26 points.
“I don’t think we really needed much motivation,” Jefferson said. “When we started the NIT in the first game, we knew what we wanted to accomplish and do. Like we said, ‘Mission MSG,’ and getting to Madison Square Garden and winning a championship since we first found out we were playing in the NIT was our goal and we’re there.”
Facing a 4-10 early deficit, Baylor then went on a 11-0 run to take a 15-10 lead. Freshman center Isaiah Austin started the run with a free throw. Then Jefferson scored on a layup and was fouled for an old school three-point play. Senior guard Pierre Jackson hit a jumper, and freshman forward Rico Gathers threw down a vicious slam dunk on a fast break. Jefferson capped off the run with another impressive three-point play after corralling a rebound and then scoring on the put-back and hitting another free throw.
Jackson recorded a double-double for the Bears with 20 points and 13 assists.
“Other than the fact that we’re going to New York, we don’t need any more motivation than that,” Jackson said. “Only one team can win it, and we want to be that team. Championships are always great regardless of the tournament so I want to be the last team standing at the end of the day.”
Freshman forward Rico Gathers was crucial to the Bears’ winning effort down the stretch with eight points and 10 rebounds.
“I just stick to my role,” Gathers said. “Rebounds, rebounds and rebounds is really all I can say. Cory just did what he’s been doing the whole year. Whether it was getting a dunk or shooting it off the glass, he just played his game.”
Baylor extended the lead to 28-20 after junior guard Brady Heslip buried a 3-pointer. Then the Friars went on a 6-0 run with junior forward Kadeem Batts scoring on an offensive rebound put-back, and junior guard Bryce Cotton scoring on a layup and a jumper.
Cotton stepped up at the end of the first half and hit a three as the buzzer sounded to tie the game 38-38 at the half.
Three Friars were in double digits as Batts had 12, Cotton had 14 and Council had 10.
The Bears started the second half on a 7-0 run thanks to buckets from both Jefferson and Austin and another Heslip three.
Council led a fast break and scored a layup to tie the game 53-53. Jackson answered by swishing a step back three. The Friars struck back with a score from Batts and a three from Cotton. Senior guard A.J. Walton scooped in a layup to tie the score, 58-58.
Council hit one of two free throws for Providence and then the Bears answered with a 6-0 run. Jefferson got the momentum and the crowd going in favor of the Bears with a signature power-packed, two-handed jam. Jackson followed up with a layup, and Walton stole the ball to setup a three-point play from Jefferson.
Momentum truly started to favor the Bears after Jackson drove hard in the paint and converted the layup and the free throw to give Baylor a 68-62 lead. Gathers then scored on a layup, and Heslip knocked down two free throws to give the Bears a comfortable 72-62 lead. With Baylor in the double bonus, the Bears hit seven more free throws and held the Friars at bay to win 79-68.
The win advances the Bears to the semifinals on Tuesday in Madison Square Garden, where they will play the Brigham Young University Cougars.