Scott Drew knew it wasn’t going to be easy for his second-ranked Baylor basketball team to knock off all the rust from being sidelined for the last three weeks because of COVID issues.
This was anything but easy.
Last-place Iowa State came out on fire, hitting six of its first seven from 3-point range and jumped out to a stunning 32-15 lead on Baylor’s home court Tuesday night at the Ferrell Center.
Facing their first double-digit deficit of the season, the Bears (18-0, 10-0) got back within five by halftime, took their first lead with 4 ½ minutes to play and pulled out a gritty 77-72 win in setting a record for the best start in program history.
“Tonight was a real gut check,” said Drew, whose team topped the previous best start of 17-0 in 2011-12, when the Bears made their second Elite Eight in three years. “When you’re not playing well and you’re not back to what you’re used to, and you can battle back and get a win when all the pressure is on you, that says a lot about our guys.
“When you make history, it’s never easy. Best start in Baylor history. That 18th win was a tough one, just like all the others.”
This one was actually a lot tougher. Baylor had won its previous 17 games by at least eight points, including 10 by double digits, and never came close to the kind of deficit the Bears faced Tuesday night.
“We knew when we got down, as long as we went 1-0 in every possession, we could get the game back,” said Adam Flagler, who scored 12 of his game- and season-high 22 points in the first half. “When we put our minds to it and play selfless for one another, we know we can beat anybody and get the job done.”
With only four games remaining in a revised schedule released by the conference office earlier Tuesday, the Bears took a big step toward winning their first-ever Big 12 title. Leading No. 10/13 West Virginia (16-6, 9-4) by four games in the loss column, they need to win just one of their last four to clinch the regular-season championship, which will be determined by winning percentages.
“Right now, every team wants to win the next game,” Drew said. “To say we want to win one more, two more, three more, we’re really focused each and every game on finding a way to go 1-0. If we do that, that’s how you get to the top of the mountain.”
Coming off a 21-day COVID pause, that mountain had to look like Mt. Everest when Baylor fell behind 32-15 on Tyler Harris’ fourth 3-pointer of the night with 6:24 left in the first half. The junior point guard initially picked Memphis over Baylor in an intense recruiting battle before transferring to Iowa State after the shortened 2019-20 season.
“I thought Iowa State had a great game play, they played really intense and did a great job,” Drew said. “But definitely, the more we settled in, we looked more like ourselves as the game wore on. That’s important, because you gave up way too many transition points that allowed them to get that early lead. That’s always a big concern from every coach coming back from an extended break is don’t turn it over and can you get back in transition?”
Flagler came off the bench to ignite a Baylor offense that turned it over nine times in the first 10 minutes and missed 12 of its first 17 shots. He scored on a putback off a miss by Matthew Mayer and drained a pair of 3-pointers in a 17-5 run that pulled the Bears back within five, 37-32, at the break.
“It’s huge,” Drew said of the first-half run. “You don’t want to come back 20 points down in the second half. I thought we had some positive energy, mojo, going into the locker room from that. That kept it in striking distance where we could make that second-half push and get back in it, get the lead.”
Jared Butler, who had as many turnovers as points in the first half (3), knocked down two 3-pointers in the first 75 seconds of the second half that quickly made it a one-point game, 39-38. Iowa State, led by Harris and Rasir Bolton with 22 and 21 points, respectively, managed to keep the lead, though, until the closing minutes.
MaCio Teague, who had 14 points, five rebounds and three assists, gave the Bears their first lead of the night with a pair of free throws with 4:26 left in the game as part of a 7-0 run. After Jalen Coleman-Landis tied it up with a 3-pointer, Teague and Butler answered with back-to-back driving baskets that gave Baylor enough of a cushion down the stretch.
“If we took advantage of every possession, we knew we could come back. We can score at a high level,” Flagler said. “We have a lot of things we can do. It was good to know we could adjust on the fly and still win the game.”
With 6-8 sophomore forward Jonathan Tchamwa Tchatchoua out, that included rotating Flo Thamba, Matthew Mayer and Mark Vital at the center position. And the Bears still managed to win a tight rebounding battle, 36-35, and outscored the Cyclones (2-17, 0-13) on points in the paint, 38-30.
“Knowing that Jon wasn’t going to be there today, I told Mark that he was really going to need to rebound,” Drew said of the 6-foot-5 Vital, who matched his season high with 15 boards. “Obviously, the first time we played them, we weren’t great on the glass, and (Vital) gave us eight offensive boards, 15 total. That’s just a monster effort out of him.”
After Teague drove inside for the go-ahead bucket, Vital came up with one of the biggest plays of the game when he blocked a Bolton drive to the basket. Grabbing the defensive board, a heads-up Teague threw the ball off an Iowa State player to give the Bears the ball back.
“I always tell the guys to ride the hip,” said Vital, who added three points, three blocks and two steals while playing 31 minutes. “I watched LeBron (James) do a lot of it. So, I try to base a lot of stuff off of that. MaCio, being a smart player, once I hit it, he runs to the corner and threw it off their man. That was a big move right there for MaCio. It changed the game.”
Scoring 15 of his 18 points in the second half, Butler nailed a tough shot off the glass to extend the lead and then hit the clinching free throws with 3.1 seconds left.
“If COVID wasn’t enough, then you throw in a blizzard or ice storm on top of it,” Drew said. “We’ve seen two things that are supposedly once every 100 years. Hopefully, this is a once in 100 type season that happens a lot more after this. I think our guys have been really positive all year long and controlled what they can control.”