By Nathan Keil | Sports Editor
In the second of two semifinal matchups, Baylor led from start to finish, with senior guard Manu Lecomte scoring 24 points, including hitting 13 of 15 from the free throw line as Baylor hung on to beat Wisconsin 70-65 in the Hall of Fame Classic.
Baylor head coach Scott Drew said that Lecomte’s ability to make shots down the stretch is a nod to his leadership on the court.
“We got the right guy to the free throw line. Manu [Lecomte] was 13-for-15 and that’s what you expect from your senior point guard,” Drew said. “The good thing about Manu is if he is not scoring, he is a point guard. If they put two on him, he does a great job finding someone else.”
The Bears also got a career night from senior forward Jo Lual-Acuil Jr., who scored 19 points and grabbed 10 rebounds.
The win didn’t come easy for Baylor, as Wisconsin used a 21-4 run in the second half to erase a 19 point deficit and cut the lead to just two at 57-55.
During the run, Wisconsin All-American junior forward Ethan Happ got six of his team-leading 23 points and freshman guard Brad Davison, hit all three of his three-point attempts en route to 13 points before fouling out in the final minute.
The Baylor defense disrupted Wisconsin offensively all night as the Badgers were sloppy with the basketball committing four first half turnovers and hitting just two of its seven three-point attempts.
But Wisconsin refused to go away quietly, as Davison was the triggerman, knocking down two three-pointers. Then foul trouble began to mount for the Bears as the Badgers hit three of four from the free throw line to cut further into the Baylor lead.
Freshman forward Tristan Clark hit one of two from the free throw line to temporarily stop the bleeding for Baylor, but Happ came right back down and scored inside on Wisconsin’s next two possessions to trim Baylor’s lead to 57-53.
After Baylor failed to convert on three straight opportunities, Happ scored again from inside, cutting the lead to 57-55.
Lecomte refused to let the game completely slip away, drawing a foul on a three-point attempt and converting all three free throws to push the lead to 60-55. In the final minute, he converted five of six to earn Baylor a matchup with Creighton on Tuesday.
Lecomte said that it was pivotal to get to the free throw line considering the team’s offensive struggles in the second half.
“I thought it was a good play,” Lecomte said. “We kind of struggled in the second half against a really good team, but we made some really tough plays defensively down the stretch and then knocking down free throws.”
The first half was a completely different story for Baylor, as the Bears led 38-26 at the half, sparked by Lual-Acuil’s 16 first half points.
Lual-Acuil showcased a variety of his offensive skills. He opened the game knocking down a contested 15-foot jumper. On Baylor’s next possession, he got the ball on the block and turned over his shoulder with the hook shot, en route to the Bears’ first eight points of the game.
Then Lual-Acuil got a little bit of help. That help came in the form of Lecomte, who knocked down back-to-back threes for Baylor to give the Bears an early 14-4 lead.
After a mini Badger spurt cut the lead to four at 14-10, Acuil Jr. went back to work, stepping beyond the arc and knocking down his first of two three pointers. Baylor senior forward Terry Maston also knocked down a three and then scored inside to extend the lead to 22-10.
Lecomte added his third three of the half and Lual-Acuil hit his second three of the game as Baylor led Wisconsin 38-26 at halftime.
Baylor came out in the second with the same offensive efficiency, pushing the lead to 16 at 47-31 after the alley-oop dunk from Lecomte to Lual-Acuil.
But just as Baylor grabbed its largest lead at 53-34 after a layup by redshirt freshman forward Mark Vital, Wisconsin began its comeback.
Despite its size advantage with Lual-Acuil, Maston and Clark, Baylor only outrebounded the Badgers by seven, 39-32. Wisconsin however, outscored the Bears in the paint 30-18.
Baylor’s defense, which suffocated Wisconsin at times, came up with six blocks and five steals to help set up the offense.
Behind Happ’s 23 points and Davison’s 13, freshman forward Aleem Ford added 10 for the Badgers.
Wisconsin (3-2) will take on UCLA (3-1) at 6:30 p.m. Tuesday.
Baylor (4-0) will get Creighton (4-0) at 9 p.m. Tuesday.
Drew said that he expects a tough challenge from the Blue Jays and knows that it will benefit the Bears in the long run.
“We know its two very good teams,” Drew said. “I have a lot of respect for Coach McDermott, so we know we will be a better team after tomorrow’s game.”
The game will air on ESPN2.