Defense propels Bears to national championship game

INDIANAPOLIS, INDIANA - APRIL 03: Jared Butler #12 of the Baylor Bears drives against Justin Gorham #4 of the Houston Cougars during the first half of their Final Four semifinal game of the 2021 NCAA Men's Basketball Tournament at Lucas Oil Stadium on April 03, 2021 in Indianapolis, Indiana. (Photo by Jamie Schwaberow/NCAA Photos via Getty Images)

By Matthew Soderberg | Editor-in-Chief

The first men’s basketball title in school history is one game away after Baylor’s 78-59 win over No. 2-seed Houston Saturday evening. The Bears nearly led wire-to-wire, as the Cougars held the lead for only 63 seconds across the entire game.

Baylor’s guards once again paced the team. Junior Davion Mitchell scored 12 points and provided 11 rebounds. Junior Jared Butler excelled with 17 points, all in the first half, and senior MaCio Teague supplied all 11 of his in the second half.

The game started out about as well as possible for Houston, forcing three turnovers in the first three minutes and three seconds. With 16:46 remaining in the first half, Houston led 8-6. The Cougars only scored 12 more points by the break as Baylor scored 39.

The Bears polished off runs of 10, six, five and 11 points between makes by the No. 2 seed, forcing nine turnovers along the way. Butler said putting defense in the forefront early was a major focus coming into the game.

“We studied those guys pretty well and knew their tendencies,” Butler said. “We wanted to come out as the aggressors. And you’ve got to start that on the defensive end especially in a game like this. People can get hot and see the ball go through. We had to set the tone early. We did a great job of doing that and fighting over ball screens.”

After a three by Mitchell with one second on the clock, the two teams headed to the locker room with Baylor leading 45-20.

After trading a pair of baskets in the opening two minutes of the second half, the Cougars scored 12 of the next 15 to close the lead to 16, but that would be as close as the underdogs would come to tying it back up. Each time Houston forced it under 20 points, the Bears would respond.

Aside from Baylor’s Cerberus of guards, junior wing Matthew Mayer and sophomore forward Jonathan Tchamwa Tchatchoua each also scored in double figures with 12 and 11, respectively. Sophomore guard Adam Flagler added seven points along with a tie with Butler for the highest plus/minus on the team with +22.

“I thought all year long our secret to our success has been our bench,” head coach Scott Drew said. “It’s a starting rotation. Again, it’s not five guys. We got a starting rotation and everybody comes in and provides a lift for us.”

Overall, Baylor shot 53% on the night, including 46% from deep. The team won the turnover battle, points off turnovers, rebounding percentage, bench points (32-11), points in the paint and fast break points (10-0). The No. 1 seed also decimitated its opponent in assists 23-10.

“That’s the best team that I’ve seen in the seven years I’ve been at Houston,” opposing head coach Kelvin Sampson said. “They’re really, really good.”

The Bears will be back to take on undefeated Gonzaga Monday night on CBS.