No. 3 seed Baylor weathers slow start for 68-56 win over No. 11 seed Cincinnati in Big 12 tourney quarterfinals

Senior guard RayJ Dennis (10) has recorded six or more assists in eight of the last 10 games, and he still leads the Big 12 in total assists (126) and assists per game (7.0). Photo courtesy of Baylor Athletics

By Foster Nicholas | Sports Writer

It took more than eight minutes for No. 3 seed Baylor men’s basketball to hit its first postseason field goal, and following 20 minutes of play, the Bears had only made six, which was their lowest total in a half all season.

Baylor flipped the script in the second half to earn a 68-56 win over No. 11 seed Cincinnati in the quarterfinals of the Phillips 66 Big 12 Championship on Thursday night at T-Mobile Center in Kansas City, Mo.

At halftime, head coach Scott Drew and the Bears (23-9) trailed 26-24 after their lowest-scoring half since tallying just 17 points against Michigan State on Dec. 16, 2023. Baylor shot 6 for 24 from the field and turned the ball over 10 times in the first half. The Bears then responded by hitting 16 of 31 shots in the second half and cutting the turnover number in half.

“When you get a double-bye the only downside to the double-bye is that first half, you have to get those jitters out and get used to everything,” Drew said in a postgame press conference. “I think the second half was a lot truer to who we are offensively. Defensively we were really good, on the glass we were good. Turnovers, too high to advance in postseason. We’ll be better tomorrow.”

All five of Baylor’s starters finished with nine or more points, with senior guard RayJ Dennis leading the charge with a team-leading 13 points on 5-for-13 shooting overall to go with six assists. Freshman center Yves Missi and senior forward Jalen Bridges added 12 points each, and Bridges led all players with nine rebounds. Freshman guard Ja’Kobe Walter was the final Bear in double-figure scoring with 11 points and six rebounds.

“Defensively, I thought we took some real steps forward,” Baylor associate head coach John Jakus said on ESPN Central Texas 1660 AM radio. “Hopefully our offense will catch up. I think being a top-five offense in the country, eventually the shots are going to come.”

Cincinnati (20-14) ripped off a 12-3 lead to open the game, and Baylor didn’t find its first made field goal until the 11:27 mark in the first half. In the following minutes, the Bears rattled off a 9-0 run to even the game, and senior forward Caleb Lohner provided a spark with five points in the stretch.

“Caleb has probably been one of the best teammates I’ve ever played with,” Dennis said in the post-game presser. “Everybody wants to play a ton of minutes every night; that’s not the case always. But he’s always really positive, a really good dude. Tonight he played extended minutes and, honestly, kept us in the game, kept our energy. He was great all night.”

With Lohner providing the energy on offense and defense, fellow bench player and sophomore forward Josh Ojianwuna also added four points in the half, capped off by a steal and score with 4:25 to give Baylor a 21-20 lead.

Drew said he still had an uneasy feeling despite trailing by just two at the break.

“Coaches are always nervous about everything, so definitely not a sense of peace,” Drew said. “More frustration, but the great thing is, we have players who are really coachable. And they don’t make the same mistakes multiple times.”

After six made field goals in the first half, Baylor missed its first three shots of the second half before hitting eight in a row and notching its largest lead of the game at 47-33. During the run, Walter nailed his first two postseason field goals, both of which were long 3-pointers.

Just as a sense of a cushion hit the scoreboard, the Bearcats went on a 10-0 run in just over two minutes to cut the Baylor lead to four. The Bears silenced the Cincinnati comeback with a pair of 6-0 runs to advance to the semifinals with the 12-point victory.

Baylor will continue its Big 12 tournament run against No. 2 seed Iowa State (25-7) at 8:30 p.m. on Friday in the same venue.

“They’re a super physical team,” Walter said on the radio. “We know that we’re going to have to match their intensity. We’re going to have to bring it from the start. And last time it came down to that close call.

“So I know they’re going to come out with a mentality of they want to get this win, but we just have to match their intensity and do what we’ve been doing.”

In the only meeting between the two teams, the Bears knocked off the Cyclones 70-68 on Feb. 3 at Foster Pavilion. Iowa State booked its ticket to the semifinals after knocking off No. 10 seed Kansas State 76-57 on Thursday night.