By Gio Gennero | Sports Writer, Braden Murray | Broadcast Reporter
The Bears title defense comes to a close as No. 1 seed Baylor men’s basketball fell in a heartbreaking 93-86 overtime loss to No. 8 seed University of North Carolina in the Dickies Arena in Fort Worth. The Bears clawed back from a 25-point deficit to force overtime, but ultimately couldn’t pull off what would’ve been the biggest comeback in March Madness history.
Head coach Scott Drew reflected on the rise and fall of Baylor this season.
“Never underestimate the heart of a champion,” Drew said. “Our guys really displayed that, having a chance to have the largest comeback in NCAA history in the last 10 minutes. Really proud of their effort and just how they carried themselves all year long. 15-0, face a bunch of injuries, adversity. We could have gone away, end up winning conference.”
Baylor ended regulation on a 38-13 run to turn a potential blowout into a vintage March Madness showdown. The Bears battled and gave their all until the final buzzer, their aggressive hustle leading to three Baylor players fouling out.
“Being in March Madness, everyone is going to bring their pest punch.” junior guard Adam Flagler said. “They have great size, but the Big 12 conference just definitely prepared us for these moments, we just came up short. So credit to them for finishing strong the way they did.
The Bears found themselves down early in the contest, UNC was in control the entire first half. After a technical foul was called on freshman forward Jeremy Sochan, the Tar Heels went on an 8-0 run to increase their lead to 24-10. Baylor had no rhythm on the offensive end, turning the ball over eight times in the first half. Not being able to penetrate the paint, the Bears didn’t shoot their first free throws until less than 30 seconds remained in the half.
Baylor shot 40% in the first half, and 20% from three, UNC led 42-29 at the break. RJ Davis, UNC sophomore guard, scored 17 of his eventual 30 points in the first half alone.
The foul trouble continued in the second half for the Bears, being called for seven fouls in the first six minutes of play, compared to UNC’s two team fouls. Baylor struggled opening the lid on the basket, as a three minute scoring drought helped the Tar Heels jump out to a 25-point lead.
However, things changed when graduate student forward Brady Manek, who already had a season-high 26 points, caught Sochan with an elbow to the head and assessed a flagrant two causing him to be ejected from the game. As if the switch had been flipped, the Bears ignited and madness ensued.
Following Manek’s ejection, Baylor went on a 11-0 run to swing momentum in their favor for the first time in the contest. The Bears were hungry and soon followed with another 7-0 run to cut it to single digits. After forcing a five-second violation, the crowd exploded and remained on their feet for the rest of the game.
Baylor’s full-court press had the Tar Heels scrambling to get the ball up the court. The Bears pounced on every UNC possession and forced multiple turnovers to cut the deficit to six points with two minutes left. After a strong defensive possession, senior guard James Akinjo’s long rebound initiated a one-on-one fast break where Akinjo’s strong and-one finish cut it to three and the crowd blew the roof off of the arena.
“We knew that as a team we weren’t going to give up,” Flagler said. ”We decided to apply pressure a lot more and be assertive out there. So once we got into those diamonds and traps, we were able to get some stops and get some easy looks, and therefore got the run going.”
UNC responded with an and-one of their own to go back up by six. Sochan responded with a huge three to keep the Bears in it. After getting the ball back, Akinjo drove and finished through contact for another late and-one, hitting the free throw to tie the game at 80 with 16.7 seconds remaining. The Tar Heels would miss the potential game-winning shot attempt, sending the contest into overtime.
UNC began OT with a quick 4-0 start, recapturing their lead. Senior forward Matthew Mayer left it all on the floor, cutting the lead back to two and drawing a charge before ultimately fouling out in what could be his last game as a Bear.
“I’d be proud of how this last game went down,” Mayer said. ”I didn’t know that that was one of the biggest comebacks in March Madness history. That just shows what we’ve been dealing with all year. We’ve had a ton of adversity. We’ve had three guys with big injuries. This team fights. So I’ll definitely be proud to go out with that.”
Following his efforts, Sochan was able to tie the game at 84. However, multiple empty Baylor possessions followed by a big finish and free throw from UNC’s Davis to take a six-point lead with one minute to play proved to be the dagger, ending Baylor’s season and hopes to repeat as national champions.
“You get down 25, it’s easy to fold. These guys don’t,” Drew said. “It’s a joy to coach them every single day. We might be losers on the scoreboard today, give North Carolina a lot of credit, coach [Hubert] Davis is a great coach, does a lot of great things, they got a lot of great players and a great program, but I’m proud of these guys and how they represent Baylor University.”
The backcourt pair, of Flagler and Akinjo, led the way for Baylor with 27 and 20 points, respectively. Sochan notched a double-double with 15 points and 11 rebounds. Mayer also scored in double figures with 10 points.
The Bears were stagnant on the offensive end, shooting 34.6% (28/81) from the field and 24.3% (9/37) from beyond the arc. They finished with both 11 assists and 11 turnovers and shot just 1-of-11 in the five minute overtime.
On the defensive end, Baylor had an out-of-character performance. Despite forcing 21 turnovers, they committed 27 total personal fouls as a team. UNC shot 49.1% from the field and 44% from three. Davis scored 30 points, and Manek wasn’t far behind with 26 points for the Tar Heels.
Drew said he was proud of what the team was able to accomplish through all the ups and downs despite the final outcome.
“First and foremost, just what great young men they are. They’re fun to be around. Each and every day they came to work. They had good attitudes. They really represented the school the right way,” Drew said. “And our theme: What is impossible with man is possible with God. I mean, to win back-to-back conference champs with three season-ending injuries, that’s phenomenal, along with all the other injuries these guys have overcome … it just shows you the toughness these guys have.”