ALBUQUERQUE, N.M. — The Baylor Bears started out looking like they were the NCAA tournament novices, not South Dakota State.
Baylor came out jittery and fell behind 19-7 in the first 7 minutes, had to ditch its zone defense and finally started to use its superior strength and size to wear down the 14th-seeded Jackrabbits in a 68-60 win at The Pit on Thursday night.
“I know our guys were prepared for a very good game,” Baylor coach Scott Drew said. “South Dakota State coming in, we had a lot of respect. We knew they were a great team and we’re pleased to get the win. I think in the beginning of the game we showed our jitters a little bit, then after that, I was very pleased with how we calmed down and got back to playing basketball.”
Although the Jackrabbits were in it until the end, they never regained the lead after Pierre Jackson, who led the Bears with 18 points, sank a 3-pointer that put Baylor ahead 24-22 with 5:45 left in the first half.
“They came out there swinging, knocking down open shots, knocking down contested 3s. Coach called a timeout, and we had to re-gather ourselves, and we switched to man,” Jackson said. “A.J. (Walton) came in and brought the defensive punch that we needed, and we got stops and got the lead.”
And never relinquished it.
Both teams nearly made Seth Davis look like a sage, however. The TV analyst proclaimed on the CBS Selection Show that the Jackrabbits would knock off third-seeded Baylor in their inaugural NCAA tournament appearance — much to the dismay of both squads.
Sure enough, the Jackrabbits jumped out to a 12-point lead early and then fought back from a double-digit deficit themselves in the closing minutes before finally falling.
Baylor guard Brady Heslip said the Bears never started to worry that maybe Davis would be taking a bow by night’s end.
“No, not at all. We’ve started games sloppy before this year, and we found the resolve to come back,” Heslip said. “Today was no different. We knew that was a great team, and we didn’t think they were going to come out there and just give the game to us. We were ready for a 40-minute fight.”
They got one.
“They really came out swinging and knocking down shots and making some great plays and playing unselfish,” Heslip said. “So none of that (upset talk) crossed our minds. We knew we were going to re-gather ourselves and rebound from it.”
Jackson and Heslip, who scored 17 points, both sank two free throws in the final 23 seconds after the Jackrabbits had pulled to 64-60 and Brayden Carlson misfired a 3-pointer that would have made it a one-point game.
The Jackrabbits got 19 points from Nate Wolters and 15 from Chad White.
Their coach, Scott Nagy, said on the eve of the game that the Bears were “the best team that we’ve ever played” and predicted that “in order to just stay in the game, we’ll have to play the game of our lives.”
They got their 15 minutes of fame instead — actually, 14 minutes, 15 seconds. That’s how long it took on the game clock for the Bears to take their first lead.
The Jackrabbits came out like, well, jackrabbits, scoring the game’s first eight points and surging ahead 19-7 on Wolters’ drive to the basket.
After that, the Bears switched from a zone to man defense and things didn’t go as well for the Jackrabbits, who reached the tournament in just their fourth year of eligibility and only five seasons removed from a 6-24 train wreck.
Led by Jackson and Anthony Jones (11 points), the Bears went on a 29-11 tear to take a 36-28 halftime lead into the locker room.
The Jackrabbits were left lamenting their uncharacteristic 13 turnovers.
“They thrive in transition, so that was a big part of the loss,” said Wolters, who coughed it up five times. “I wasn’t nervous. I just lost the ball a couple times.”
Then there was the Bears’ 35-23 advantage on the glass.
“We came into this game expecting to win, and we had our chances,” White said. “They just beat us up on the rebounds and we lost our opportunity.”
Baylor pushed its lead to double digits in the second half but the Jackrabbits kept coming, pulling to 64-60 with 1:14 left on back-to-back 3-pointers by Griffan Callahan and White.
“The thing about it is even though things didn’t go well for us and weren’t going well for us most of the game, and most of our guys just didn’t play at the top of their game, our kids didn’t quit,” Nagy said. “I was really proud of them of that. But, you know, that’s of little consolation when you’re talking to kids after a game like that.”