By Cody Soto
After the final buzzer sounds at the Ferrell Center tonight, No. 14 Baylor men’s basketball seniors Kenny Chery and Royce O’Neale will walk off the court for the final time. The Bears’ final Big 12 matchup against Texas Tech at the Ferrell Center marks the final time fans will see both senior players sporting their Baylor jerseys.
Baylor basketball is in a good position heading into its final game thanks to the contributions of its two seniors. The Bears (22-8, 10-7 Big 12) hold a reputable 14-2 home record this season and have not lost to a Texas team all year at the Ferrell Center.
Time and time again, the seniors have complimented the home crowd, and the fact that it’s their final time playing in front of it means a lot, Chery said.
“It’s going to mean a lot playing in front of these fans; they’ve supported us a lot this year,” he said. “We still want to compete and play our game. Our coaches want us to execute, and we want to go out the way we want as seniors.”
This season, O’Neale leads the team in three-point percentage (45 percent) and assists (102) heading into today’s matchup. Chery only trails his teammate by one assist (101) and leads Baylor in free-throw percentage (84 percent). Both seniors contribute an average of 21 points per contest but still allow several other key players to lead the team to success.
In each game, juniors Taurean Prince and Rico Gathers step up, just like Chery and O’Neale did last season where the Bears fired back from a 2-8 conference deficit to finish the season in the Sweet 16.
While they may not be as big as former players Cory Jefferson and Isaiah Austin or as talented from beyond the arc like Brady Heslip, these two seniors have led in a different way.
“You always have players who lead by example, and then you have players who lead vocally and verbally, and those guys do both,” head coach Scott Drew said. “When they say something, people listen because it’s accurate and it’s not self-serving, but it’s good for the team.”
Because of their leadership along with the hard work displayed by many key players on the roster, the Bears are on the verge of making an appearance in back-to-back NCAA tournaments, something that has never been done at Baylor.
“We’ve done a lot of firsts this year: winning for the first time in Ames, Iowa, first time going to back-to-back NCAA tournaments, and hopefully be the first Baylor team to win the Big 12 tournament,” O’Neale said. “We are trying to accomplish a lot of things; it’s been a team effort.”
Both seniors transferred to Baylor last year, Chery coming from Montreal, Quebec, and O’Neale from Killeen. Each player’s personality was a big factor in his recruitment, and the impact they would make in two years time was very important, Drew said.
“When we recruited them, we knew they were high character people,” he said. “Whenever you add high character people who are talented, you know they’re going to help your team. You never have to worry as a coach what you’re going to get every day; you love that as a coach.”
Following in the footsteps of former point guard Pierre Jackson, the shoes were big to fill for Chery. Jackson averaged 19.8 points per game and had 255 assists in his senior season, and his graduation left a big hole in Baylor’s offense. With that in mind, motivation has allowed Chery to thrive at the leadership position from the moment he arrived in Waco.
“I came here to make something special,” Chery said. “I knew I was going to run the team, so my job was to come here and be a leader and put guys in the best position as possible and be a second coach out there.”
Several bracketology experts are projecting the Bears as a likely No. 3 seed in the NCAA tournament. With one game left before the postseason, Chery can give himself a pat on the back.
“I think I’ve been doing a good job out there, and I’m proud of myself,” Chery said. “We’re going back to the dance, and going to make something special.”
The Bears have won four of their last five Big 12 games, including six wins over ranked opponents in a single season for the first time in program history. Tonight’s game is no different; they plan to keep on playing as well as they have been.
“A win would definitely be fitting for what Kenny and Royce have done for our university, our basketball team and the outstanding young men they are,” Drew said. “Everyone in that locker room respects them, and we’re going to do everything we can so they have a nice last home game.”
For these seniors, the selflessness has taken the team to new heights. It doesn’t matter who gets the most points for the Bears, but the end factor is what matters.
“We always look for somebody who is open, and we try to find the easiest play to make a basket,” O’Neale said. “If [the seniors] can finish a game with 10 assists each and someone else can score 20 points and we win, and then we’ll be happy.”
A win over Texas Tech tonight guarantees at least a No. 4 seed in the Big 12 tournament next week for the Bears, and the team could be as high as the No. 2 seed if certain situations end up happening in the final day of Big 12 regular season play on Saturday.
No matter what team they play, Baylor is ready to make another deep run in the NCAA tournament behind their two seniors.
“By the way Kenny and Royce play in an unselfish manner and practice, they’re very easy examples for people to look up to,” Drew said. “Their actions are backed up by their words, and vice versa.”
The Bears host Texas Tech at 8 p.m. today at the Ferrell Center to close out the Big 12 regular season. The game will air on ESPN2.