By Michael Haag | Sports Editor
Maybe playing in the Mountain Standard Time Zone was all junior forward Caleb Lohner needed to get his mojo back.
In the midst of a rough 2022-23 campaign, Lohner, a transfer from Brigham Young University, stepped up with a season-high and NCAA Tournament career-high of 13 points off the bench in No. 3 seed Baylor men’s basketball’s first game of the NCAA Tournament in the South Region. The Bears defeated the No. 14 seed University of California, Santa Barbara Gauchos 74-56 Friday afternoon in the Ball Arena in Denver.
“I was ready when my number was called,” Lohner said. “And I think my role on this team is just to do whatever I can to help win. At the end of the day, today was the day that I needed to step up a little bit. I’m so grateful that we can be moving on and keep playing basketball.”
Lohner was 100% from the field, hitting all five of his shots and one triple. The perfect shooting day set a program record for NCAA Tournament games (minimum of five shot attempts).
The trio of Lohner, redshirt senior guard Adam Flagler and junior guard LJ Cryer carried the load offensively, as Flagler (18) and Cryer (15) both reached double figures. Flagler’s 18 was a game-best, and he was 7-of-10 from the floor, 3-of-5 from 3-point land and he dished out a team-high five assists.
Cryer’s 15 points marks a new career-high in March Madness.
Redshirt senior forward Jonathan Tchamwa Tchatchoua chipped in off the bench with a game-high nine rebounds. The nine boards were the second-most he’s snagged in an NCAA game in his career.
Baylor (23-10) was able to pull away from the Gauchos (27-8) in the second half of Friday’s contest after trailing 36-35 through the first 20 minutes.
“Credit to our guys [in the] second half for making some adjustments and really dialing in defensively,” head coach Scott Drew said. “And [it] helps when you have veteran guards in Adam and LJ. And Caleb really gave us a great lift. He always is tremendous on the glass and defensively. And offensively he was really productive and taking the right shots [at the] right times.”
UC Santa Barbara’s head coach Joe Pasternack thought his team was doing a good job in the first half, but said the Bears’ defense really caused problems in the final 20 minutes.
“I thought in the first half we really executed our game plan extremely well,” Pasternack said. “[We] held Baylor to 2-of-7 from 3 [in the first half]. They’re an excellent 3-point shooting team. And then in the second half, their defense really picked it up and forced turnovers. And then they went 6-of-15 from three, 40%. That really hurt us.”
Baylor was able to limit the damage from the Gauchos’ sophomore guard Ajay Mitchell and senior forward Miles Norris. Norris finished with 15 points on 6-of-8 shooting, whereas Mitchell secured 13 points and four assists.
It was a back-and-forth battle early on, as Cryer scored the first two buckets for the Bears to make it 10-9 at the first media break. A few minutes later, redshirt freshman guard Langston Love appeared in his first game since injuring his retina against Oklahoma State University on Feb. 27.
Lohner was already in at this point and scored six quick points to give Baylor an 18-11 edge. The Gauchos responded by outscoring the Bears 13-4 over a four-minute stretch to take a four-point lead.
Both teams scored back-and-forth, but Flagler nailed a jump shot with four seconds on the clock to cut Baylor’s lead to 36-35 going into the locker room. Flagler and Lohner led the way offensively in the first half, scoring nine and eight points, respectively.
The Bears came out of the break with an emphasis on defensive intensity. They scored 11 points to UC Santa Barbara’s five in the first 4:36. Flagler said the team’s defense “was huge.”
“I felt like we were together and connected and flying around for one another,” Flagler said. “And we know in this tournament, especially in order to win just one game, defense wins games. So, at the end of the day we want to pride ourselves on that and be better.”
USCB trimmed its deficit to six points with just under 10 minutes to go, but Baylor passed by the Gauchos 16-5 over the final 9:28 to take the 18-point victory. Cryer poured in 11 second half points, hitting 4-of-8 shots and one 3-pointer. Flagler followed with nine points in those final 20 minutes.
Drew said he was pleased to see his team reach the round of 32 for the fifth-straight season.
“We knew it was going to be a hard-fought game and [it will be in] every game in the NCAA Tournament,” Drew said. “It’s a blessing whenever you win. Thank God for giving us an opportunity to play. And no one got hurt.”
Additionally, fifth-year senior forward Flo Thamba appeared in his 11th career tournament game, passing Matthew Mayer for the most in program history.
The Bears will take on No. 6 seed Creighton University in the round of 32 on Sunday, as the Bluejays took down No. 11 seed North Carolina State University on Friday. The game will take place in the Ball Arena in Denver.
A game time hasn’t been announced yet, so stay up-to-date with our Twitter account, @BULariatSports, for the latest.