By Ben Everett | Sports Editor
No. 9 seed Baylor men’s basketball upset No. 8 seed Syracuse 78-69 on Thursday night in Salt Lake City to advance to the second round of the NCAA Tournament. Baylor will face No. 1 seed Gonzaga on Saturday.
With both teams implementing a zone defense, the Bears and Orange didn’t shy away from the 3-point line in attempt to break each other’s zone. The two teams combined to make 28 3-pointers while Baylor shot a scintillating 16-for-34 from behind the arc.
In his second NCAA Tournament appearance, and first since leading Yale to an upset win over the Bears in 2016, Baylor senior guard Makai Mason notched a team-high 22 points on 7-for-14 shooting.
Syracuse was led by junior forward Elijah Hughes, who scored 25 points on 7-for-15 shooting from the field and 6-for-11 shooting from 3-point range.
The Bears made an early point of attacking Syracuse’s 2-3 zone and finding open shooters on the perimeter. Sophomore forward Mario Kegler started the game with back-to-back 3-point makes from the corner. Of Baylor’s first 11 shots from the field, 10 of them were from behind the arc and the Bears made six of them.
Despite the hot outside shooting by Baylor, the Orange stayed in the game thanks to Hughes, who scored 11 points in the first nine minutes, but Baylor held a 20-19 lead.
The two teams, in order to counteract each other’s zone defense, continued to launch 3-pointers. Syracuse junior guard Tyus Battle converted a 4-point play to give the Orange its first lead of the game at 28-25.
The Baylor defense clamped down in the late stages of the first half, holding Syracuse to just one field goal in the final five minutes. Meanwhile, Mason knocked down two more 3-pointers to give Baylor a 38-37 lead heading into the break.
Baylor switched to a man-to-man defense to start the second half, and the Orange began to make plays off the dribble. Battle scored on back-to-back jumpers, but the Bears continued to bomb away from 3-point range with senior guard King McClure draining two in a row to give Baylor a 48-46 lead five minutes into the half.
On a drive to the basket, Mason knocked knees with a Syracuse defender and left the game at the 13 minute mark. Mason returned at the 10 minute mark with the game tied at 57 apiece, and the Bears went on a 5-0 run to force a Syracuse timeout with eight minutes left in the second half.
Mason and junior forward Freddie Gillespie each knocked down clutch midrange jumpers to extend the lead to five with under three minutes remaining.
Syracuse began to implement a full court press in an attempt to make a late comeback. The Bears broke the press twice, with Mason knocking down two free throws and Gillespie hammering home an exclamation point dunk to cap off the 78-69 victory.
The time for Baylor’s second round matchup against Gonzaga on Saturday has yet to be announced.