By Shehan Jeyarajah
Despite looking like one of the hottest teams in college basketball only one game ago, the momentum finally ran out for Baylor basketball. The Bears looked to reach their third Elite Eight in five seasons, but fell short to No. 2 Wisconsin 69-52 Thursday at the Honda Center in Anaheim, Calif.
Wisconsin came out and punched Baylor in the mouth right off the bat. Junior forward Frank Kaminsky had eight quick points for the Badgers as they took a 10-4 lead over five minutes into the game. The Bears cut it to 10-8, but it was all Wisconsin from there.
The Badgers exploded out to a 15-3 run behind multiple three-pointers from Wisconsin guard Ben Brust. The Badgers shot 6-for-10 over an eight minutes stretch; Baylor shot only 1-for-7 over the same time period. Wisconsin took a 29-16 lead into halftime over the Bears.
“Our inability to be effective offensively first half with their ability to score inside [killed us],” Baylor coach Scott Drew said. “Again, 29 points. Normally if a team scores 29, you’re fine. That’s pretty good defense. People would say 58 for the game you’re winning the majority of the games.
Baylor’s zone defense struggled to contain the Badgers, and they tried to go to a man defense, which was equally unsuccessful.
“In the first two Tournament games, we made it really tough to finish in the paint,” Drew said. “[Kaminsky] was really able to score inside. One that happened, it caved in the defense and they really shot the ball well.”
Throughout the entire second half, the Bears could not seem to make a dent in the deficit. After five straight points to open, senior guard Gary Franklin made a layup to cut the lead down to 15 with 13:35 left to go. Kaminsky responded with a dunk only 30 seconds later.
Two possessions later, sophomore forward Rico Gathers slammed home a dunk to pull the lead down to 15 again. Wisconsin forward Duje Dukan responded with an and-one layup. And that is how it continued: Baylor seemed to find an opening, but the Badgers immediately shut it.
“We thought [we could come back] if we could come out and put a couple stops together,” Baylor coach Scott Drew said. “We just never could get consecutive baskets when you’re 2 for 15 from three. You needed a couple of them to go in.”
Baylor continued to fight until the buzzer sounded, but it was not enough as the Bears fell to the Badgers 69-52 in the Sweet Sixteen.
Baylor struggled all night to contain Kaminsky. The seven-footer finished the night with 19 points on 8-of-11 shooting to go along with a career-high six blocks despite playing Baylor’s lengthy frontcourt.
“He’s just a great player,” senior forward Cory Jefferson said. “He’s a multi-movement guy around the rim. When you have a seven-footer that does that, it’s hard because you go try to block it, but he uses another move and finishes pretty well.”
Baylor’s frontcourt of Austin and Jefferson combined to shoot 11-for-25 on the night, but everyone else combined to shoot a paltry 7-for-33 combined, or 21.2 percent. The Bears shot a Big 12-leading 39.2 percent from the three-point line on the season, but could muster only 2-for-15 against the Badgers.
If Baylor had shot to their season averages of 45.9 percent from the field and 39.2 percent from three on the same shot attempts, they would have scored 73 points.
A game after finishing with 19 assists against Creighton, the Bears had only 10 assists. Junior point guard Kenny Chery had only one of those assists. Franklin and junior forward Royce O’Neale combined for six assists, and no other Bear had more than one. To contrast, Wisconsin had 18.
Baylor, a team that outrebounded its opponents by seven boards a game over the course of the season, lost the rebounding battle 40-33 to the Badgers. Even though the Badgers turned over the ball an uncharacteristic 10 times, Baylor could not take advantage.
Despite the heartbreaking loss to Wisconsin, the turnaround that men’s basketball went through this season is hard to ignore.
Heading into the 2013-14 season, no one knew quite what to expect from the Baylor Bears. The Bears had major questions at the point guard and small forward position, and came into the season at No. 25.
Despite the lack of fanfare Baylor exploded out of the gate with wins over Colorado and No. 3 Kentucky in non-conference, and set themselves up to be the No. 7 team in the country as conference play started. That’s when the trouble started.
Ten games into conference, the Bears sat at 2-8 in following a loss to Oklahoma in Norman, Okla. The future looked uncertain. Most college basketball analysts thought it impossible for the Bears to even have a chance at the NCAA Tournament.
But the Bears caught fire when it counted most. Out their final 14 games before the loss, Baylor won 12, including wins over No. 16 Iowa State, No. 17 Oklahoma and No. 16 overall Creighton. The run was capped off by a surprise appearance in the Big 12 Championship game.
The Bears dominated Nebraska in their first Tournament game, setting themselves up for a tough game against Creighton and likely National Player of the Year Doug McDermott. The Bears dominated the Bluejays to reach the Sweet Sixteen for the third time in the past five seasons.
“To be able to play as well as they have and come together as well as they have, just happy they were able to finish on a strong note, especially for the seniors,” Drew said.
Jefferson, guard Brady Heslip and Franklin have played their final games in a Baylor uniform.
“They’ve done so much for the program and are such class acts,” Drew said. “No one likes losing the last game; but, again, only one team is going to be happy, and unfortunately we’re not that team.”
Drew also became the winningest coach in Baylor history this season, and currently sits with 206 wins in his Baylor career, breaking Bill Henderson’s record of 201 wins. Henderson coached at Baylor for 18 seasons; Drew has been Baylor’s head coach for only 11. Baylor basketball finished with a record of 26-12, and 9-9 in conference. The 26 wins are third most in the history of Baylor basketball; all three of the top seasons are under Drew.