No. 2 MBB lockdown No. 6 Villanova for ninth-straight win

Senior guard James Akinjo and freshman forward Kendall Brown defend a shot attempt from Villanova in the Ferrell Center on Dec. 12. Photo courtesy of Baylor Athletics

By Gio Gennero | Sports Writer

No. 2 Baylor men’s basketball continued their undefeated season with a stellar defensive performance against No. 6 Villanova University for a 57-36 victory on Sunday afternoon in the Ferrell Center to propel the Bears to 9-0 on the season.

Going into the game, Villanova had the No. 4 offense in the nation, but it proved to be no match for Baylor’s defense which held the Wildcats to their lowest scoring game under head coach Jay Wright. Head coach Scott Drew attributed the defense to the players and staff, as well as the Ferrell Center crowd.

“I first give the crowd a lot of credit,” Drew said. “Second, the staff did a great job game planning, assistant coaches too. The third was the players, they do all the work so they’re really committed to locking down and following the game plan. We have a lot of size, length and we have a lot of players that care about winning and know the importance of defense. Our returning players have done a good job instilling that with the new guys and the new guys are buying into what we’re doing.”

Senior guard James Akinjo led the way with 16 points, seven rebounds and five assists. Junior guard Adam Flagler finished with 10 points as well as five assists of his own. Freshman forward Jeremy Sochan sniffed a double-double with nine points to go along with 10 rebounds. Although they did not fill up the stat sheet, junior forward Jonathan Tchamwa Tchatchoua and senior forward Flo Thamba made their presence felt with outstanding defense both in the paint and on the perimeter. Drew said the pair are anchors of the defense.

“Everybody’s important but John and Flo anchor everything,” Drew said. “Without them it makes it harder on everybody [on our side] because it makes it easier on everybody [on the opposing offense]. They have great size and length, they can guard guards, they can contest at the rim, and they’ve both gotten a lot more vocal, which calls out and keeps everyone on the same page defensively.”

The Ferrell Center crowd was electric from the jump and erupted as senior forward Matthew Mayer opened up the game with a quick three to give the Baylor the first strike. The Bears applied pressure early, coming out with a 8-1 lead. The defense was crucial, forcing multiple turnovers. Villanova struggled to begin the game and the fans made sure they knew about it.

Flagler said it was the best atmosphere for a home game he’s played in during his collegiate career.

“This probably the one,” Flagler said. “I was able to be a part of the game with Kansas when they came here, the atmosphere was crazy, but this was probably the best one.”

The Bears’ gritty perimeter defense allowed for little to no penetration, holding the Wildcats to just four points in the first 10 minutes of the game, including a scoring drought of over six minutes. However, despite imposing their will on that end of the floor, Baylor struggled to get things going offensively. They were able to get good looks, but couldn’t capitalize.

An emphatic Baylor dunk from Tchamwa Tchatchoua increased their lead to 14-7 and seemed to open things offensively as they began to heat up. Freshman forward Kendall Brown’s fast break layup put the Bears up 20-9, giving them their first double-digit lead of the game with five minutes remaining in the first half. A three from sophomore guard LJ Cryer capped off a 13-2 run by Baylor.

Going into halftime, the Bears led the Wildcats 25-15 back-to-back Villanova threes lessened the deficit. Baylor held Villanova to 23% (5-of-24) from the floor and forced seven turnovers. Akinjo led all scorers at the break with seven points to go along with his five boards and three dimes.

During the intermission, a tribute video dedicated to college basketball broadcaster Dick Vitale was played on the big screen. It included a compilation of Dickie V’s memorable moments as well as a message from Drew. The arena gave Vitale a standing ovation as they showered him with cheers.

To open the second half the Bears struggled to get the lid off of the basket, as all of their shot attempts bounced around the rim multiple times before rattling out. It wasn’t until four minutes into the half that Baylor hit their first field goal. Akinjo helped to ignite the Bears midway through the half, getting multiple buckets and steals as well as drawing charges to maintain the momentum and get the crowd back on their feet.

Baylor went on a 13-3 run to take control of the game and increase their lead to 40-22 with nine minutes to go. Right after checking into the game, Thamba met Wildcats’ senior forward Brandon Slater at the rim for a huge stuff that blew the roof off of the Ferrell Center.

As play continued, a corner-three from Sochan widened the gap to 21 as they led 50-29 with two minutes remaining. Villanova implemented a full-court press late, which Baylor broke with a Hail Mary pass from Flagler to Tchamwa Tchatchoua who sealed the deal with a monstrous and one slam. The Bears cruised to the finish line, winning the game 57-36.

The victory will potentially pus Baylor to No. 1 for the fourth time in the last six seasons. However, Drew said he and the team aren’t focused on rankings right now because their goal is to be No. 1 when the season ends.

“First and foremost every coach tells you the goal is, at the end of the year to be number one,” Drew said. “I will tell you it always means something. Something to your fans, your coaches, your players and everybody. It’s a great sign of respect for people that have come before you, the work they put in. This will make us, I believe, four times ranked number one in the last six years and there are only three other schools that have done that three in the last five years … Tremendous honor. There’s 358 teams, it’s really hard to do. It’s even harder to stay number one, so if we are blessed with that, everybody congrats on the award and then back to work.”

Up next the Bears will travel to Eugene, Ore. to face the University of Oregon (5-4) at 9 p.m. on Saturday in the Matthew Knight Arena.