By Gio Gennero | Sports Writer
No. 1 seed Baylor men’s basketball cruised by No. 16 seed Norfolk State University, 85-49 on Thursday afternoon at Dickies Arena in Forth Worth, to advance in the NCAA Tournament.
“March Madness is expecting the unexpected,” head coach Scott Drew said. “So every win is a blessing and if you’re not ready to play, you’re done for the year. So I credit these guys being ready and focused and making sure we put our best foot forward.”
In their Baylor-record ninth NCAA Tournament game, senior forwards Matthew Mayer and Flo Thamba thrived with solid performances. Mayer led all scorers with a career-high 22 points on eight-of-12 shooting. Thamba finished with 14 points on six-of-eight shooting, while the pair pitched in six rebounds each. Mayer credited his teammates for his performance.
“I’ve had some pretty good games, this one was pretty good,” Mayer said. “This one was a lot easier because they were playing zone and my teammates were just whipping the ball around and finding me. I really didn’t feel like I had to do too much, I just stood there and they found me.”
Thamba doubled down on crediting the team for his success.
“I really just keep working on and focusing on finishing at the top of the glass, but it’s really just my teammates,” Thamba said. “My teammates keep finding me in the right places and I finish my breakfast as I like to call it.”
Following them on the shat sheet was freshman forward Jeremy Sochan with 15 points and seven boards. The backcourt senior tandem of guards Adam Flagler and James Akinjo finished in double figures with 11 points and 10 points respectively. Akinjo notched a double-double in his first NCAA Tournament appearance, piling in 10 assists as well.
The Bears (27-7, 14-4 Big 12) clicked in all aspects of the game, shooting 57.4% from the field, including 40.7% from three, hitting 11 total. On the defensive side, Baylor forced Norfolk State (24-7, 12-2 MEAC) to turn the ball over 15 times, leading to 21 points off turnovers. Baylor crashed the glass ferociously, coming down with 38 total boards, and 13 offensive rebounds which were converted for 19 second-chance points.
Flagler kicked things off by scoring Baylor’s first five points, but getting into early foul trouble putting his hot hand on hold. The Bears were letting it fly from deep early on as they hit six of their first eight attempts from beyond the arc, helping them take a 28-10 lead midway through the first half.
The Bears pushed the lead to 19 as an acrobatic finish from Sochan got Baylor fans on their feet with just over two minutes left in the half. With the half coming to a close, the Spartans attempted to get things going, but the Bears held them off, going into halftime ahead by 16 points, 43-27.
To end the half, Sochan seemingly threw a deep pass to Mayer to set up a dunk in the final seconds. Although, Sochan said the ball was actually just hit out of his hands by a defender.
“I got the rebound, and I didn’t really pass it to him, but I’ll take the assist. I’ll take it,” Sochan said.
Mayer led all scorers at the break with 10 points, with Sochan right behind him with nine points as well as six rebounds. Akinjo and Flagler had eight points apiece, and Akinjo also had four assists.
Baylor flowed well on offense in the first half, shooting 55.6% from the field and 43.8% from three. On the defensive end, Baylor’s gritty defense was locked in forcing the Spartans to miss 13 of their first 16 shot attempts. They forced Norfolk to turn the ball over seven times in the first, and held the Spartans to 33.3% shooting and 27.3% from three.
To open the second half of play, Mayer connected for his third three-pointer of the contest. The Bears pushed their lead to 22 five minutes into the second half at 54-32. Baylor continued to roll, hitting six of their next seven shot attempts, holding on to their big lead.
With just under eight minutes left of play, Flagler’s three from the March Madness logo gave Baylor a 28-point lead, their largest of the game at 67-39, but the Bears didn’t stop there. Flagler got rid of the ball at the logo once again, but this time to a soaring Kendall Brown as the freshman forward threw it down with authority. Baylor was able to clear the bench as they maintained their lead, holding on for the 85-49 win.
Up next, the No. 1 seed Bears will face the winner of No. 8 University of North Carolina and No. 9 Marquette University on Saturday at Dickies Arena in Fort Worth.
“This is a one-game tournament, not a four week or three week tournament,” Drew said. “If you’re not ready to move on to Saturday, then the season is over. It’s really about locking in and making sure you’re giving yourself every chance possible to be successful in that next game … We’re just glad to be playing. Whoever that is, we’re prepared to put our best foot forward.”