By Shehan Jeyarajah
Baylor looked like one of the best teams in the nation a few weeks ago. Baylor’s only loss coming into conference play was against Syracuse, a team now ranked No. 2 in the nation. Baylor is falling right out of the conversation for the NCAA Tournament and that was accentuated Tuesday night in Waco.
Baylor basketball (13-7, 1-6) fell to conference rival West Virginia (12-9, 4-4) for its fifth consecutive loss and sixth in the last seven games after the 66-64 loss to the Mountaineers. This was the first Baylor loss to West Virginia.
Baylor opened the game with a three-pointer from senior guard Brady Heslip, but immediately gave it back to West Virginia on a three-point play to West Virginia forward Devin Williams. Baylor would score four straight, but then allowed five right back.
Sophomore forward Taurean Prince scored seven straight points to cut the lead to 17-16, but Baylor subsequently allowed eight straight points to junior forward Remi Dibo and West Virginia pushed its lead to 25-20.
Baylor fought back to cut the lead to 27-26 after a Heslip three-pointer. Baylor once again let its chance at the lead slip away by fouling junior forward Kevin Noreen and giving him two easy points. Sophomore center Isaiah Austin hit a three-pointer, but Baylor took a 36-33 deficit into halftime.
Sophomore forward Rico Gathers grabbed eight rebounds in the first half, compared to nine for the whole West Virginia team. After finishing with only three assists in the first half against Texas, the Bears had eight in this one.
Once again, Heslip opened things up with a three-pointer. Sophomore forward Rico Gathers received the ball in transition and slammed down a SportsCenter Top 10 worthy dunk to get the crowd on its feet. Junior forward Cory Jefferson followed with an authoritative slam dunk of his own.
That sparked a seven-point Baylor run that ended with Jefferson making a basket to tie the game at 47-47. Baylor and WVU traded baskets for the next couple of minutes.
Trailing 64-60 with 2:48 left, Baylor forced a shot-clock violation on West Virginia and then forced a turnover that led to a nailed three from Heslip to cut the WVU lead to 64-63.
“When we went to the three-guard lineup, I thought our defense was incredible,” Heslip said. “We forced a shot-clock violation and a turnover. We had opportunities.”
Junior guard Juwan Staten missed two free throws for West Virginia and Gathers knocked down one of two free throw attempts to tie the game at 64-64 with less than a minute left. Staten earned redemption by hitting a game-winning layup with 3.1 seconds left to give West Virginia the 66-64 victory over Baylor.
“The frustration is definitely there,” Gathers said. “If I make that free throw, I would have fouled Staten down on the other side and sent him to the line. He had just missed a couple the time down before, maybe it’s a different game.”
Similar to the game against Oklahoma, Baylor failed to get a shot off in the final 3.1 seconds.
“If you watch the replay, Cory was wide open under the basket for a dunk,” Drew said. “But we didn’t execute. Let’s credit West Virginia pressuring the ball. I’ll take our chances of Cory making a dunk anytime.”
Heslip led the Bears in scoring with 13 points on four three-pointers to go along with three assists. Junior guard Kenny Chery added 10 points, four assists and three rebounds.
The frontcourt of Austin and Jefferson struggled to get anything going offensively. The duo finished with a combined 12 points on 5-for-12 shooting and five turnovers.
Staten led the Mountaineers in scoring with 15 points and nine assists.
Baylor struggled in its two weakest categories once again, free throw shooting and turnovers. The Bears had 17 turnovers on the night, including 11 in only the first half. Baylor shot 61 percent (14-for-23) from the free-throw line.
“We knew that they play pressure defense coming in, and we thought we had a great gameplan for it,” Heslip said. “The turnovers hurt it. It’s so difficult to stop a live-ball turnover. You have to give Staten credit, he’s really fast.”
Baylor will look to turn things around at 1 p.m. on Saturday when the Bears travel to Stillwater to take on No. 8 Oklahoma State.