By Matthew Soderberg | Editor-in-Chief
The 71-year drought has been quelled. Baylor men’s basketball is headed to its first Final Four since 1950 after an 81-72 victory over Arkansas Monday night at Lucas Oils Stadium in Indianapolis.
The Bears came out thrashing. They immediately jumped out to a 7-0 lead and kept pounding the drum until the Razorback deficit reached 18 at the 11:01 mark of the first half. Baylor held at least a 15-point cushion over the No. 3 seed until five minutes remained, as Arkansas ran off nine straight to close the lead to six. Junior guard Jared Butler finished off the half with two free throws to go into the locker room 46-38.
The second half was a more even affair in the box score, but it didn’t feel all too different. After junior guard Davion Mitchell was sent to the bench with three fouls midway through the first, he wanted revenge after the break. He earned four driving layups through traffic in the first nine minutes, including one after his own free safety-style steal and hesitation step capped a 7-0 run to bring the lead back to 12.
“Davion Mitchell is one of the fastest guys I’ve ever guarded, especially this year. He’s a tough cover,” Razorback Jalen Tate said. “He’s a facilitator for them as well as just their anchor defensively, so he causes a lot of problems on both sides of the ball. He’s an excellent dribble driver. He can also knock down shots, and he’s as good as anybody we played this year.”
Following Mitchell’s fourth make, the Razorbacks responded with eight straight to cut the deficit to four with 9:34 remaining. That was the closest they’d come. After each team traded a pair of made free throws, Baylor scored 10 of the next 11, including a final emphatic second-chance dunk at the 2:44 mark by senior forward Mark Vital just seconds before fouling out of the game. Head coach Scott Drew said even though the three seed made advances, the Bears’ determination made them ready.
“I thought it showed how focused and ready to play we were. And we got great looks. Guys made good shots,” Drew said. “And Arkansas is a great team. We knew they’d make a run, and they did. And credit our guys for having an answer. But I really thought we were focused from jump and really had a good game plan. And credit them for adjusting.”
The Razorbacks were down and out for the count for the remainder, never closing the lead to less than eight and exhibiting a slow desire to foul down the stretch (they only fouled twice in the final seven minutes).
After a dismal offensive performance against Villanova, the Bears returned to form Monday night, shooting 53% from deep. Senior guard MaCio Teague led the way with 22 points, including three bombs. Butler and Mitchell followed with 14 and 12, respectively, while sophomore guard Adam Flagler contributed 10.
Arkansas’ strategy was the opposite of Villanova’s — speed their opponents up. Teague said after the game that no opposing tactic is going to get them off track.
“We can play any style of basketball,” Teague said. “And we can adjust in certain situations, and we can overcome it all.”
While the offense was on fire, Baylor defense provided the spark. Flagler’s four steals and junior wing Matthew Mayer’s three paced the team in forcing 15 turnovers and capitalizing on them with 21 points off opponent mistakes.
“Baylor’s a really, really good team,” Arkansas head coach Eric Musselman said. “They’re the best team that we’ve played this year.”
Baylor will take the court again on Saturday against old Southwest Conference foe, No. 2-seed Houston.
“What we did was history here,” Teague said. “I’m really happy for Coach Drew. He’s spent a lot of time, dedication, hard work, blood, sweat and tears building this program. And I’m really happy for those guys — him and Coach Tang and the guys on the coaching staff.”