By Nathan Keil | Sports Writer
Junior guard Al Freeman scored 21 and junior forward Terry Maston added 19 points and nine rebounds off the bench as No. 3 Baylor defeated No. 14 New Mexico State 91-73 to advance to the round of 32 in the NCAA Tournament.
Baylor head coach Scott Drew said his team’s depth made all the difference.
“All year long, our depth has been a real strength,” Drew said. “Al [Freeman] and T.J. [Maston] had monster games, and that’s what the beauty of having depth is.”
After a back and forth first half that saw Baylor trailing 40-38, the Bears opened the second half with a 22-7 run to take control against the Aggies.
First team All-Big 12 junior forward Jonathan Motley shook off a shaky first half in which he only scored four points and sat the final ten minutes of the first half due to foul trouble. Motley finished the game with 15 points, 10 rebounds and added three assists and two blocks for good measure.
For Motley, a lack of rebounding in the first half was hurting the Bears and controlling the glass was the key to the game.
“They were making a lot of threes and controlling the boards a little bit,” Motley said. “I just wanted to come in and control the boards as much as I can and firing my team up.”
Baylor won the rebounding battle 39-27.
Fellow junior forward Jo Lual-Acuil Jr. also battled foul trouble at times but proved to be too much in the post for the Aggies, finishing with 16 points and five rebounds. He also had three of Baylor’s seven blocked shots.
Baylor began to dig deeper on the defensive end as the Aggies went cold from the field. After shooting six of 14 on three pointers in the first half, New Mexico State was held to 37 three point percentage in the second and was unable to pick up where it left off from three-point distance.
The Bears, thanks to their play on defense, made Western Athletic Conference (WAC) Player of the Year senior guard for New Mexico State Ian Baker struggle. Whether it was Freeman or sophomore guard Jake Lindsey chasing him in and around screens, the Bears contested everything. Baker finished with 19 points but was just six of 18 from the field and hit only one of four three-point attempts.
Junior guard Braxton Huggins and sophomore forward Eli Chuha also finished in double figures for New Mexico State with 19 and 11 points respectively.
After 20 minutes of play, it looked as if Baylor’s dream season could once again end early in the round of 64 to a double-digit seed.
New Mexico State came out to start the second half red-hot, jumping to an 11-3 lead on Baylor, taking advantage of four early turnovers by the Bears.
But Baylor began to settle in on the offensive end, using a 13-2 run of its own to take its first lead of the game at 16-13.
With Baylor’s two leading scorers, Motley and junior guard Manu Lecomte, struggling to find an offensive rhythm in the first half, it was Maston and Freeman who sustained the Bears in the scoring column.
During a 10-minute stretch in the first half, Maston and Freeman scored 18 straight points for Baylor and Freeman hit all three of three-point attempts. The two combined for 25 first half points.
The Aggies fought back to take a two-point advantage into the half thanks to a barrage of three-pointers to close the first 20 minutes against Baylor but were unable to sustain their smooth shooting touch and momentum in the second half.
New Mexico State finishes the season 28-6 overall.
Despite the disappointment of defeat, New Mexico State first year head coach Paul Weir said the season was a complete success.
“It sucks the way it ends,” Weir said. “I wish we had a different ending to all this, but I think whenever we sit back and look back on the season and look as the successes that we had, we’re all going to look on this team really fondly one day and have memories for a long, long time.”
Baylor improves to 26-7 and the 91 points for the Bears was the most scored in a tournament game in program history.
The win snaps a two-game losing skid for the Bears in the NCAA Tournament. It is only one win down for the Bears, but for Motley, it is one step in the right direction.
“No one wants to leave the tournament early,” Motley said. “Our ultimate goal was to come in and just win it, so we want to just take every game for what it is and make sure we come in and just play our hardest, play desperate, because after this, you lose, you go home. So we knew one team was going home today, and we made sure it wasn’t us.”
No. 3 Baylor will play No. 11 USC at apporximately 6:45 p.m. on Sunday in Tulsa, Okla.