Indianapolis— In the last few weeks Baylor has been playing with a whole different attitude and swagger. They have taking their physicality to another level. Baylor Defense 4.0.
Led by Jared Butler and the rest of his teammates and a stifling which refused to give Houston an inch on the hardwood, Baylor beat Houston 78-59 Saturday night in their first appearance in the NCAA Tournament semifinals in 71 years.
“Every day you’re grinding, and you don’t really look back. You’re pressing forward,” Baylor coach Scott Drew said, “but I’m so blessed to have these unbelievable players that bought into what we like to do with the program.”
There were roughly 8,000 fans that were allowed to cheer the game, socially distanced with a sea of blue seats visible, provided a muted soundtrack to the blowout taking place inside the home of the Indianapolis Colts.
“This was probably the toughest year for any of us,” Houston coach Kelvin Sampson said, “and not just the bubble here but COVID challenges, isolation, being quarantined, social distancing, masks — this was quite a year. But you know, the sting of this will leave them. Days will turn into weeks, weeks into months, and what they’ll remember is the memories.”
Baylor set the tempo from the start of the game, jumping out to an early 14-3 run fueled by the sharp passing, sharp shooting and tenacious defense that gave the Cougars fits all game long.
When Houston finally got their offense going, Baylor sprinted out another 16-3 run later in the first half, killing the nation’s top 3-point field-goal defense without breaking up a good sweat. Five Baylor players were in double figures during that run. The Bears had a 45-20 lead going into the break.
Or, as Butler put it: “This is what we came to Baylor to do.”
Butler scored all 17 of his points in the first half, but just about everyone from Baylor (27-2) and coasted the rest of the way in the first Final Four showdown for the evening.
Marcus Sasser scored 20 points and Quentin Grimes chipped in 13 for the Cougars (28-4), who was hoping to get to their first Final Four since 1984 — they played teams seeded 15th, 10th, 11th and 12th along their journey.
“We had a great run,” Sasser said as he held back tears. “Just fell short this year.”
Sasser did everything he could to keep Houston’s season going, hitting five 3-pointers and creating shots for his teammates. But the rest of the Cougars were 1 of 15 from the field, including their All-American guard Grimes (0 for 5) and Dejon Jarreau (1 for 7), who earned MVP honors in the Midwest Region.
Sampson, whose reputation for being a master tactician was pushed to the limit, tried to get the Cougars to go to the basket more in the second half. But nothing he drew up seemed to work against the Bears.
Next up for the Bears is Gonzaga, the overall No. 1 seed, which beat UCLA 93-90 when Jalen Suggs banked in a buzzer-beater in overtime. Monday night’s championship game was supposed to be played in December, but that game was called off hours before tipoff due to a COVID-19 outbreak within the Bulldogs program.
“They got pros, we got pros. They win a lot of games, we win a lot of games,” Butler said. “I think we match up pretty well.”
“When we’re all connected and we’re all united, it’s hard for anybody to beat us,” said Butler, who had struggled in the first four NCAA Tournament games, hitting just 6-of-24 from 3-point range. “We’ve got a lot of guys who would start on other teams, easily. We’ve got a lot of pros, and I think that’s why we’re so good. That’s why we’re making it to the national championship game. And that’s what we’re going to need in the championship game as well.”
Scott Drew team played selflessly, almost effortlessly, never once feeling the weight and pressure of college basketball’s biggest stage, then celebrating the victory at midcourt when the final buzzer went off.