By Shehan Jeyarajah
Baylor basketball opened its home season Tuesday afternoon at the Ferrell Center with a hard-fought 66-64 win over SEC opponent South Carolina. With the showcase win in front of a national television ESPN audience, Baylor (2-0) has won eight straight home openers in the Scott Drew era.
Both Baylor and South Carolina started hot right out of the gates. The two teams came out shooting 15-for-17 from the field, including 3-for-3 from the three-point line. South Carolina jumped out to a 17-19 lead with 12:58 in the first half.
Both Baylor and South Carolina struggled to find an advantage early in the contest. The Gamecocks held the lead for most of the first, but never led by more than four in the half. The Bears gained some momentum after a mid-range jumper from junior point guard Kenny Chery, and tied up the game heading into the half.
In the first half alone, 29 fouls were called between the two teams that led to 30 free throw attempts. The two teams combined to shoot 24-for-49 for the half.
Within the first 90 seconds of the second half, four fouls were called. Both teams struggled to feel out the second half, and neither team led by more than five for most of the second half.
Senior guard Brady Heslip hit two three-pointers in the span of 90 seconds that shifted the momentum of the game. The three-pointers, hit at 14:08 and 12:32 in the second half, gave Baylor the lead for the first time, and then tied the game back up at 52-52. A third three-pointer by Heslip with 9:53 left in the half gave Baylor a lead it would not relinquish.
South Carolina tried to make things interesting at the end of the game. A South Carolina jumper with 4:20 left in the second half tied the game up at 64-64. That score would stand for more than two minutes, as both teams combined to shoot 0-for-3 and had four turnovers in that span.
With 2:27 left in the game, junior guard Tyrone Johnson got a steal on Baylor guard Royce O’Neale with nothing but open court in front of him. Johnson blew the layup off the back of the backboard and Baylor got possession.
“I could say I was going too fast or whatever,” Johnson said after the game. “But there’s no excuse. I just missed the layup. As a point guard, as a leader on this team, I have to make that layup.”
Heslip was key to the win, finishing with 18 points, including five key three-pointers. Heslip has 20 games with four or more three-pointers in his career, including nine with five or more three-pointers.
“I didn’t feel like I had that much space. South Carolina was doing a good job of trying to deny me,” Heslip said. “But my guys did a great job of finding me when I had a little bit of space.”
Sophomore center Isaiah Austin delivered 14 points and three blocks in only 26 minutes because of foul trouble. He was able to take advantage of South Carolina’s undersized frontcourt, finishing with eight free throw attempts.
Sophomore forward Taurean Prince led Baylor with 12 rebounds off the bench in 17 minutes. Prince had eight points in only 17 minutes as a result of foul trouble. Sophomore forward Rico Gathers had seven rebounds in 14 minutes. Prince and Gathers combined for nine huge offensive rebounds.
Fouls were big in dictating the pace of the game. In all, 55 fouls were called in the 40-minute game between the two teams. There were 79 free throw attempts from these fouls. Both teams combined for 99 field goal attempts.
After the hot start from both teams, they cooled off mightily. After the quick scoring pace early, both teams combined to shoot only 26.8 percent from the field for the rest of the game. For Baylor, only two players had more than seven field goal attempts.
“Basketball shooting is largely out of your control,” Baylor head coach Scott Drew said. “Some nights you’re on, some nights you’re off. If you’ve got different people who can step up, it makes you that much harder to guard consistently.”
Baylor struggled mightily from the free throw line versus South Carolina. The Bears got to the line 43 times, but shot 22-for-43 from the charity stripe, or 51.2 percent. Junior wing Royce O’Neale was the biggest culprit, shooting 3-for-9 from the free throw line. Heslip went 3-for-6. Both of these players are 75 percent or better free throw shooters for their career. Baylor also had 15 turnovers compared to South Carolina’s eight. The Gamecocks were able to turn Baylor’s turnovers into 19 points.
“Fifteen turnovers in your second game isn’t too bad against a quality opponent,” Drew said. “The points off turnovers though, we can’t have them turn opportunities into easy buckets.”
Baylor will look to continue its hot start against Louisiana-Lafayette at 4 p.m. Sunday at the Ferrell Center.