By Daniel Hill
NEW YORK – The Baylor Bears won the NIT championship by defeating Iowa 74-54 Thursday and cut down the nets in victory at New York City’s Madison Square Garden. The NIT trophy is Baylor’s first-ever NIT Championship, and the Bears also became the first Big 12 team to ever take home the NIT hardware.
Three Baylor Bears were named to the All-NIT first team. Senior guard Pierre Jackson, junior forward Cory Jefferson and freshman center Isaiah Austin were all named as All-NIT first team members.
Pierre Jackson was named the Most Outstanding Player for the NIT. Jackson had a double-double with 17 points and 10 assists. The senior also contributed five rebounds.
The game’s leading scorer was Jefferson with 23 points. He also tacked on seven rebounds. Jefferson was nearly perfect from the free-throw line, going 7-8, and also added one block and one steal.
Austin was also named to the All-NIT first team. He added 15 points and nine rebounds in the victory over Iowa.
Defensive specialist and senior guard A.J. Walton was a menace against his Iowa opponents. Walton had six steals, creating mayhem for the Iowa offense.
Walton added five points and five assists to help lead the Bears to victory. Late in the game, Walton ran into an Iowa player and fell to the court.
He was down on the ground for awhile, and then when his Baylor teammates carried him off the court. He did not put any weight on his injured leg.
The Bears started the championship match by jumping out to a 9-2 lead behind the efforts of Austin, Jefferson and a 3-pointer from junior guard Brady Heslip.
Austin scored the first four points of the game with a flurry of offensive moves to create his own shot. Then Heslip added the trey, and Jefferson converted on a layup to give the Bears an early 9-2 lead.
Facing the early deficit, Iowa called timeout to gather themselves. It must have worked because the Hawkeyes rallied to come to within two of Baylor, 11-9.
Austin scored on a jumper from the free-throw line and was fouled on the way up for a chance to convert the 3-point play. Austin nailed the shot from the charity stripe to give Baylor a 14-9 lead and some momentum to counter Iowa’s 7-2 run following their timeout.
Freshman forward Rico Gathers scored on the next two Baylor possessions on a slam dunk from a Jackson assist and then again on a layup from a Jefferson assist to give the Bears a 20-14 lead.
Hawkeye Josh Oglesby countered with a three, and then Walton buried a baseline jumper with an assist from Jackson to give the Bears a 22-17 lead.
Walton stole the ball and passed it up ahead to Jackson, who acrobatically hung in the air to clear space and made a highlight layup.
Going into the half, Baylor led 27-22.
Starting the second half, Iowa played with a sudden sense of urgency. The Hawkeyes cut the game to a one-possession contest when Eric May drained a 3-pointer and then converted on another layup to cut the Baylor lead to three, 30-27.
That was as close as the game would get from there as Baylor stepped on the throttle and put away the Iowa Hawkeyes.
Jefferson stepped out and buried a jumper, and then Jackson sank a trey to extend Baylor’s lead to 33-27.
Jackson hit two more free throws, and then Jefferson threw down two consecutive vicious slam dunks. Jackson followed up Jefferson’s highlight dunks by silencing the pro-Iowa crowd with a cold-blooded step back three.
The game really started to swing Baylor’s direction when Gathers, who’s not known for his finesse shooting, stepped out and sank a deep jumper to give Baylor a sudden 49-34 lead.
Baylor’s lead peaked at 21 when Jackson and Jefferson hooked up on two more slam dunks for Jefferson to put Iowa away with a 60-39 lead.
At this point, the game was Baylor’s to win, and Iowa was put into desperation mode.
Iowa started to play at a frenetic pace, and Baylor took advantage of them in transition as junior guard Gary Franklin scored on two layups and Jefferson and Austin each threw down one more dunk.
With 1:14 to play, senior walk-on forward Jacob Neubert entered the game for his last appearance in the Baylor green and gold. Jackson left the court to a rousing ovation from the Baylor faithful.
Baylor walked off the court with a championship and accomplished something that no other Baylor team has done before.
The Bears are bringing the NIT championship trophy from New York City’s Madison Square Garden home to Waco’s Ferrell Center.