By Shehan Jeyarajah
Baylor entered the Big 12 Tournament as a seven seed, but with six minutes left in the championship game, the Bears looked ready to become an improbable Big 12 Conference tournament champion.
The Bears came up just short, falling in the championship game 74-65 to No. 9 Iowa State on Saturday.
But despite the disappointing loss, Baylor pulled an incredible run in the Big 12 Tournament to increase its NCAA Tournament standing and enter postseason play as one of the hottest teams in basketball.
The Bears defeated TCU in the first game 76-68 on Thursday night. The Bears led by double-digits for much of the game, including a 16-point lead with under nine minutes left in the game.
The Bears shot 54.4 percent from the floor on the night and outrebounded the Horned Frogs 39-22 over the course of the game.
Baylor held TCU to 37 percent from the floor in the first half, but the Horned Frogs shot 53.8 percent from the field in the second half, led by TCU center Karviar Sheperd’s 16 points.
Baylor sophomore center Isaiah Austin countered with 13 points himself, and the Bears managed to hold on for the win.
Senior power forward Cory Jefferson led the way with 20 points and 10 rebounds. Austin added 18 points and five blocks. Junior forward Royce O’Neale put up a solid game with 14 points and 12 rebounds on 6-for-7 shooting from the field.
Shepherd finished with 19 points and seven rebounds for the Horned Frogs. Star guard Kyan Anderson added 17 points and eight assists while playing all 40 minutes.
The Bears moved on to play No. 17 Oklahoma in their second game in two days. Baylor defeated the Sooners 78-73 in their third matchup this season.
Baylor scored the first 10 points of the game capped off by a dunk from Jefferson.
The Sooners could not get closer than six points for the entirety of the first half, and went into halftime trailing 47-31.
Oklahoma shot only 38.7 percent in the half, while Baylor shot 54.8 percent and 60 percent from three.
Baylor stretched the lead out as far as 21 in the second half, but Oklahoma responded.
The Sooners went on a 33-17 run to pull within five with 2:34 left and ultimately cut the lead to within three on a three-pointer from sophomore guard Buddy Hield with under 10 seconds left.
Senior guard Brady Heslip calmly went to the line and knocked down two game-clinching free throws, and Baylor pulled off a 78-73 victory. Oklahoma outscored the Bears 42-31 in the second half behind 14 points from forward Cameron Clark in only 15 minutes.
All five Baylor starters finished with double-figure scoring numbers. Austin once again led the way with 18 points and five blocks in 31 minutes.
Jefferson added 13 points and 11 rebounds. O’Neale notched another double-double with 12 points and 10 rebounds.
Hield and Clark combined for 34 points on 34 shots for the Sooners. Oklahoma shot 42.4 percent from the field for the game, and lost the turnover battle 9-5.
The win against Oklahoma led Baylor to a rematch against the Texas Longhorns on Friday, who beat Baylor in their last matchup two weeks before. Baylor took this one 86-69 in dominant fashion.
Texas took a 4-2 lead for Baylor’s first deficit of the Big 12 Tournament, but they responded with a 30-14 run over the next 15 minutes to take a 32-14 lead behind 16 first-half points and eight rebounds from Jefferson.
Baylor took a 42-27 lead into the half after holding Texas to only 33.3 percent from the field in the first half.
Texas forward Jonathan Holmes missed all five of his shot attempts and was held scoreless in the first half.
Texas improved its shooting to 45.2 percent from the field in the second half, but could not get closer than 12 points. The Longhorns held the Bears to only nine fields goals, but sent them to the free throw line 27 times versus going to the line only five times.
Heslip scored 15 points in the period, including three timely three-pointers to end Texas runs.
Jefferson finished with 20 points, 13 rebounds and three blocks in 32 minutes. Heslip added 24 points with six three-pointers.
Austin added seven blocks. O’Neale posted his third double-digit rebound game with ten boards.
Longhorn guard Isaiah Taylor finished with 16 points and seven assists in 29 minutes, but no other Longhorn starter scored in double-digits.
Texas shot only 2-for-8 from the free throw line and shot 39.7 percent from the field.
After three straight wins, Baylor reached the Big 12 Championship game against Iowa State on Saturday night.
The Bears magical run came up just short in a 74-65 loss to the Cyclones. In front of a hostile Iowa State crowd at Kansas City’s Sprint Center, Baylor threw the first punch.
The Bears opened with an 8-0 run capped off by a three-pointer by Heslip.
Senior forward Melvin Ejim hit one of two from the free throw line, but O’Neale added another three to give Baylor an 11-1 advantage seven minutes into the game.
After missing its first 13 shots, Iowa State fought back to cut the lead down to 29-27 behind two three-pointers from Iowa State guard Naz Long.
Senior guard Kenny Chery was fouled on a three-pointer and hit three free throws to give Baylor a 32-27 lead heading into halftime.
Despite the lead, Baylor shot only 34.5 percent from the field in the first half compared to Iowa State’s 32 percent. Jefferson was held to only one point in the half, while Ejim scored only two for Iowa State.
Baylor maintained control for much of the second half, but could not pull away. Long hit a three-pointer to tie the game at 50-50 with 6:33 left and Ejim hit his first three 45 seconds later to give Iowa State its first lead of the game.
Baylor and Iowa State traded baskets, but the Cyclones pulled away with a 12-5 run to close the game. After holding the Cyclones to 32 percent shooting in the first half, Iowa State shot 69.6 percent from the field in the second half led by senior guard DeAndre Kane’s 12 points and five assists in the half.
Austin was named to the All-Big 12 Championship team after accumulating a tournament record 18 blocks. Jefferson also added a tournament record 43 rebounds.
The Iowa State trio of Ejim, Kane and forward Georges Niang joined Austin on the all-tournament team. Kansas guard Andrew Wiggins rounded out the team.
Thanks to the strong tournament run, Baylor moved up to No. 23 in the country after winning 10 of its last 12 games. It was announced on Selection Sunday that Baylor would be ranked a six-seed in the NCAA Tournament, largely thanks to its Big 12 Conference tournament performance.
Baylor will open the NCAA Tournament against the Nebraska Cornhuskers at 11:40 a.m. Friday at the AT&T Center in San Antonio. The contest will be televised on TruTV.