By Shehan Jeyarajah
The Baylor men’s basketball team was dead in the water only a few weeks ago.
Even head coach Scott Drew, the eternal optimist, could not find a team that managed to make the NCAA Tournament after that poor a start.
But after Baylor’s (20-10, 8-9) big time 74-61 win against No. 16 Iowa State (22-7, 10-7) in Waco, it may be impossible to leave the Bears out of March Madness.
“Absolutely, no question [we belong in the NCAA Tournament],” Drew said. “You can’t hold losses against top 25 teams in the top conference in the country against us. I think we have seven top 50 wins; I don’t think any team has ever missed the tournament with that resume.”
Senior power forward Cory Jefferson scored seven of Baylor’s first eight points to give the Bears an 8-7 lead, but Iowa State senior guard DeAndre Kane responded with back-to-back three-pointers to lead an 8-0 Iowa State run that gave the Cyclones a 15-10 lead.
Baylor junior guard Kenny Chery scored eight straight for Baylor to cut the Iowa State lead down to 18-16. Iowa State and Baylor would play even until Jefferson flew in with an ESPN SportsCenter Top 10-worthy alley-oop to cut the Iowa State lead to 29-28.
Iowa State junior forward Dustin Hogue hit a three, but senior guard Brady Heslip responded with three straight free throws to give Baylor a 36-35 advantage heading into halftime.
Jefferson had 15 points, four rebounds, a block and a steal on 6-for-8 shooting to lead the way for Baylor in the first half. Chery added eight points.
Heslip missed both his first-half three-point attempts, and the Bears shot 22.2 percent as a team in the first half.
Kane was the leader for Iowa State in the first half. He scored 17 points in 11 minutes, including shooting 4-for-6 from three-point range to go along with three assists. Junior forward Dustin Hogue added seven points and three rebounds.
Iowa State’s leading scorer, senior forward Melvin Ejim, struggled shooting all night. The senior missed all six of his first-half attempts from the field. Sophomore forward Georges Niang, Iowa State’s third-leading scorer, was also held scoreless in the first half.
Baylor started slow from outside in the second half, but Heslip would not leave quietly on senior night. Over the course of two minutes, Heslip nailed three straight three-point jumpers to give Baylor a 46-40 lead with 16:15 remaining. Iowa State came back to take a 51-50 lead on Niang’s hook, but Baylor went on a seven-point run capped off by a Heslip three-pointer to push the lead to 57-51.
Iowa State cut the lead to 61-58 before Kane nailed a three-point jumper to tie the game 61-61 with 4:10 left.
From there, the Baylor Canadians, Heslip and Chery, scored nine straight points to key a 13-0 Baylor run to end the game.
The 5-foot-11 Chery ended the game with a dunk to thunderous applause, and Baylor took home a 74-61 win.
“Best senior day ever,” Heslip said. “All I wanted to do was win. I left everything out there to win, this is the best feeling I’ve felt in this gym, no question. It means so much to me and these guys that we could go out with a win.”
Heslip and Jefferson combined for 39 points, eight rebounds and four assists on 13-for-21 shooting on their senior night.
Chery added 16 points and six assists. Despite scoring only three points, junior forward Royce O’Neale quietly grabbed 11 huge rebounds in 28 minutes.
“You can’t get much more inspired than on your senior night,” Jefferson said. “You want to win on the final night of playing in your home gym. On top of that, you’re fighting to make the big dance. There were all sorts of things to inspire us tonight.”
The Bears held the best offensive team in the Big 12 to only 61 points, the first time the Cyclones have been held under 70 points this season.
Against a team that typically thrives in transition, the Bears limited Iowa State’s opportunities on the fast break.
“We held them to two transition points,” senior guard Gary Franklin said. “We emphasized trying to get back whether we missed a shot or not, because even when they make a shot, they get the ball out quick.”
Kane scored 20 points, but only three in the second half. Niang and Ejim were held to a combined 10 points on 25 percent from the field.
Iowa State shot only 40 percent as a team, and only 34.4 percent in the second half.
Tuesday’s game was the last home game in the careers of Jefferson, a fifth-year senior, Franklin and Heslip, both third-year transfer seniors.
Baylor will look to close out the 2014 regular season strong against the Kansas State Wildcats at 12:30 p.m. Saturday at Fred Bramlage Arena in Manhattan, Kan.
The Bears will then move onto the Big 12 Tournament from March 12-15 in Kansas City, Mo.