By Shehan Jeyarajah
For the first time in over 20 years, No. 20 Baylor basketball was invited to take part in the Maui Invitational Tournament, one of the biggest preseason tournaments in the nation. Baylor fought their way to wins over Chaminade and Dayton before falling to No. 8 Syracuse in the title game.
The Bears opened the tournament against Division II Hawaiian college Chaminade. The Silverswords came out with a strong fight in the first half behind senior guard Christophe Varidel. The Swiss guard hit seven three-pointers in the first half to pull Chaminade within 45-45 at the half. Varidel finished with 42 points for the game, one off of the tournament record of 43.
In the second half, Baylor managed to pull away 93-77 behind 22 points and six three-pointers from senior guard Gary Franklin. The Bears had 11 threes and shot 44 percent from the three-point line. The Bears also outrebounded Chaminade 47-32 behind sophomore forward Rico Gathers’ 14 rebounds in 18 minutes.
Outside of Varidel, no other Chaminade player scored in double figures. The rest of the team combined to shoot 30 percent from the field and 25 percent from the three point line. Only nine of Chaminade’s 26 field goals were assisted.
Baylor was expected to play No. 11 Gonzaga in the second round, but Dayton spoiled the Zags’ party with a first round upset. The Flyers nearly pulled another upset against Baylor in the second round.
After Baylor scored the first point, Dayton went on a 20-9 run to start the first half. The Bears would try to fight back, but Dayton’s lead grew to 30-16 with 6:14 left in the first half. By the end of the half, Baylor had pulled within 33-28.
The second half went similarly to the first to start off. The Bears faced a deficit of seven of more until the 5:46 mark of the second half. Even then, Baylor trailed 63-57 with 3:49 left in the game. At that point, Baylor took over.
Junior forward Royce O’Neale hit a layup and a three on back-to-back possessions to cut the lead to 62-63 with 2:19 left in the game. After Devin Oliver broke free to hit a three for Dayton, Baylor faced a two possession game with under two minutes left.
Franklin hit a three-pointer with 1:22 left to bring the lead within 66-65 for Baylor. Oliver missed a jumper for Dayton with 56 seconds left, and Baylor had a chance to win it. Kenny Chery created a mid-range jumper, but couldn’t convert. Jefferson was not boxed out and easily rebounded and put in a layup with 16 seconds left in the game to win, 67-66.
Junior forward Royce O’Neale finished with 13 points on 4-for-6 from the field, three steals and two assists. Junior guard Kenny Chery added 13 points and four assists. The frontcourt of Cory Jefferson and Isaiah Austin finished with a combined 20 points, 11 rebounds and four blocks.
For Dayton, freshman guard Jordan Sibert finished with 20 points on 7-for-12 shooting and 4-for-6 from the three-point line. Senior forward Devin Oliver added 14 points, six rebounds, five assists and three steals, including perfect 4-for-4 from the three-point line. After finishing with 18 offensive rebounds against Gonzaga, Dayton was limited to just eight.
The two wins bought Baylor a date with No. 8 Syracuse in the tournament finale. Syracuse would strike early, jumping out to a quick 10-2 lead over Baylor. Baylor would fight back to a 16-16 tie, but Syracuse would respond with a 14-2 run to take a 30-18 lead after Baylor went nearly eight minutes without scoring.
Baylor would try to chip into Syracuse’s lead in the second half, but C.J Fair responded with a jumper almost every time Baylor tried to go on a run. The Bears would eventually cut the lead to five with a jumper by Brady Heslip, but a turnover by Ish Wainright would end Baylor’s run as they would fall 74-67.
Cory Jefferson dominated in the win with 15 points and eight rebounds on only eight shots. Isaiah Austin added 11 points and 2 blocks on only five shots. Kenny Chery and Brady Heslip each added 12 points.
Turnovers killed the Bears in this game. Baylor committed 20 turnovers in this game compared to Syracuse’s seven turnovers. Syracuse was able to leverage these 20 turnovers into 24 points off turnovers. The Bears lost despite shooting a better percentage from the field, from three and outrebounding Syracuse.
Senior forward C.J Fair was named MVP of the Maui Invitational after posting 24 points against Baylor. Sophomore forward Jerami Grant added 19 points on 12 shots off the bench. Freshman guard Tyler Ennis had four steals and nine assists.
Senior power forward Cory Jefferson was named to the official Maui Invitational All-Tournament Team for his performance. Jefferson was also subsequently named Big 12 Men’s Basketball Player of the Week for his performance.
The rest of the All-Tournament team including Kevin Pangos from Gonzaga, Grant from Syracuse, Oliver from Dayton and Justin Cobbs from California.
No. 20 Baylor will look to leverage their strong play in the Invitational against No. 3 Kentucky at 9 p.m. on Friday at AT&T Stadium in Arlington. The game will be nationally broadcast on ESPN.