By Shehan Jeyarajah
After seemingly being on pace to fall out of even the National Invitational Tournament conversation, let alone the NCAA Tournament, Baylor basketball has raced back into the postseason picture after a four-game Big 12 Conference winning streak.
Baylor (18-9, 6-8) capped off the streak by exploding to a decisive 88-75 win over West Virginia (15-12, 7-7) in Morgantown on Saturday.
Baylor allowed West Virginia to score nine unanswered points to get out to a 17-9 lead. Baylor responded with a run of its own to pull the deficit to within one, 21-20, after a dunk from sophomore forward Rico Gathers.
Baylor tied up the game at 33-33 on a three-pointer from junior forward Royce O’Neale with 4:28 left in the first half. With 21 seconds left in the half, freshman forward Nathan Adrian hit a three to push West Virginia’s lead to 42-36 at half.
Baylor hung around and tied the game at 47-47 on a three from senior power forward Cory Jefferson. Baylor tied up the game again at 54-54, and O’Neale took over from there.
O’Neale scored 10 points over the final 9:38 of the game, including two three-pointers. He added two assists; one to senior guard Brady Heslip for a three and the other to junior point guard Kenny Chery for a dunk to boost Baylor to an impressive 88-75 victory in Morgantown.
“Overall, it was a big win, and I am very pleased with our team’s performance,” Baylor head coach Scott Drew said. “Defensively, we were much better in the second half. Now we just need to keep going because the Big 12 is a grind.”
O’Neale finished his career-night with 22 points on perfect 8-for-8 shooting from the field, 4-for-4 from the three-point line and 2-for-2 from the free-throw line. He added six points and six assists with no turnovers in only 29 minutes.
“You always try to see the best in your players, but you know they normally are not going to go eight-for-eight and perfect from both three and the free throw line,” Drew said.
Austin added 19 points and seven blocks in the win. Chery added 13 points and seven assists. Heslip nailed four threes for 12 points.
West Virginia guard Juwan Staten was limited to 16 points on 16 shots by Baylor’s defense, including 2-for-8 in the second half. The Mountaineers shot only 32.1 in the second half. Guard Eron Harris scored 32 points on 6-for-9 from three, but it was not enough to overcome Baylor’s momentum.
West Virginia shot 32.3 percent from two-point range for the game, including only 12 points in the paint to Baylor’s 38. The Bears played disciplined basketball and committed only four turnovers, and out-blocked West Virginia 10-2 behind Austin’s seven blocks.
“They didn’t let a bunch of our guys through,” West Virginia coach Bob Huggins said. “We just missed shots. It’s tough to get to the basket when they do what they did.”
Baylor’s frontcourt has re-emerged as elite to propel Baylor to a four-game winning streak in the Big 12.
Over the four-game winning streak, Austin is averaging 15.8 points and 6.3 blocks per game. Jefferson was named Big 12 Player of the Week after averaging 17.8 points, 10.8 rebounds and 1.8 blocks per game on 53.3 percent from the field in the four wins.
As it currently stands, Baylor is playing its way back into the NCAA Tournament. ESPN’s Bracketology by Joe Lunardi has Baylor in the tournament as a 10-seed and playing New Mexico in the first round.
The selection committee tends to look at what you have done recently more than what has happened in the past. The selection committee also looks at a team’s biggest wins. With wins against No. 3 Kentucky, No. 8 Oklahoma State and a close loss against now No. 8 Syracuse, Baylor has the type of quality wins to get into the big dance that is March Madness.
Baylor has four games remaining: No. 24 Texas, No. 15 Iowa State, Kansas State on the road and Texas Tech at home. If Baylor can split those four and finish with a record of 20-11, including 6-2 in the final Big 12 games, that could earn the team a berth in the tournament after a year’s hiatus.
Baylor basketball will travel to Austin at 8 p.m. Wednesday to play No. 24 University of Texas. The game will be nationally broadcast on ESPNU.