NEW YORK — It wasn’t quite the NCAA national title that the Baylor Lady Bears won for a second time last season, but the Baylor Bears men’s basketball team no longer has to be called the Bad News Bears when it comes to lacking a postseason championship.
As the only men’s squad from Texas to play beyond the regular season this year, the second-seeded Bears (23-14) not only brought a title back to their home state, they simultaneously made history by winning their first basketball championship, after capturing the 2013 National Invitation Tournament crown with a convincing 74-54 win over the Iowa Hawkeyes, at a sparsely attended Madison Square Garden on Thursday night.
Junior forward Cory Jefferson scored a game-high 23 points and grabbed seven rebounds, tournament MVP, senior guard Pierre Jackson, had 17 points and a game-high 10 assists, and 7-foot-1 freshman center Isaiah Austin added 15 points to go along with a game-high nine rebounds and five of the game’s seven blocks (all by the Bears).
At the other end of the floor, a stifling Baylor defense held third-seeded Iowa (25-13) to just 26.1 percent shooting (18-for-69), including just 20.8 percent (5 of 24) from three-point range, while the Bears shot 54.2 percent (26-for-48) from the field, and sank as many free throws as the Hawkeyes made field goals.
After allowing Baylor to score nine straight points and lead 9-2, Iowa answered with 7 of the next 9 points to trim its early deficit to just 11-9 after nine minutes, and the Hawkeyes stayed within 20-17 five minutes later.
The Bears scored the next four points, but despite making just one-quarter of its 28 first-half shots, Iowa hung in the game, down only 27-22 at halftime, before starting the second half on a 6-1 run to trail just 28-27 less than 2½ minutes into the frame.
A small, but loud crowd of just 5,301 fans, consisting mostly of Hawkeyes backers, made the Garden sound like an Iowa home game for a while, but that group became silenced as Baylor went on a game-deciding 30-10 surge to lead 58-37, with 7:04 remaining, and Iowa never got closer than 17 points the rest of the way.
“The stat that jumps out at me is we had 20 offensive rebounds [of the 25 in the game],” said head coach Fran McCaffery. “That’s effort, that’s special. That should have equated to more success offensively.”
It should have, but it didn’t thanks to the Bears’ solid interior defense.
Asked if he had ever been involved in a game in which one of his teams gave up that many offensive rebounds yet still won by as many as 20 points, head coach Scott Drew chuckled and said, “No, [with] the offensive rebounds, [we] kept coming into the time outs, [telling our players], ‘We’ve got to rebound, guys.’ [But] when they got rebounds, they didn’t score… I think the length of Cory and Isaiah helped with that.”
Drew also laughed off the thought of his team’s stumbling prior to making its NIT title run.
“You had to bring that up,” he quipped, when addressing Baylor’s resiliency to overcome a stretch of 9 losses in 13 games before the NIT began.
He then added, “Our team lost some close games, and the common denominator was when we shot over 70 percent from the free-throw line, we won, and when we shot in the 50s and 60s, we lost… tonight, we were 18 of 23, and you win a lot of games at 78 percent.”
Not the Bears couldn’t have beaten the Hawkeyes even if they had missed all of their free throws, since the margin of victory surpassed the total number of foul shots they made. However, to Drew’s point, hitting from the line, where Pierre made all six of his attempts while Jefferson made 7 of 8 free throws, helped Baylor (14 of 18 at the foul line in the second half) pull away more easily.
Baylor’s first NIT championship came after a pair of NCAA Elite Eight runs in 2010 and 2012, and marked only the third time that the Bears had ever played for a postseason title, with all three occasions coming at MSG.
They lost the NIT final to Penn State in 2009 and came up short against Kentucky in the 1948 NCAA championship game.
“I’m proud of these guys,” Drew said. “[In] ’09 we were [NIT] runner-ups, and we saw [Penn State] celebrate. We’ve been to two Big 12 championship games [and], saw the other teams celebrate, so it’s just great that this team could win the first [men’s] championship for the Big 12 conference in the NIT, and also the first [men’s] championship for the school.“
Meanwhile, taking home the award as the NIT’s best player this year fittingly capped a short-lived but brilliant Baylor career for Jackson, who spent two years with the Bears after leading Southern Idaho to a junior college national title in 2011.
Setting an NIT record with 16 assists in Baylor’s second-round NIT win over Arizona State, Jackson finished with double figures in both points and assists over his final four games.
His three-pointer with 13:51 left gave the Bears a 42-31 lead, and made the 5-foot-10 Las Vegas product Baylor’s all-time single-season scoring leader. Entering the contest with a Big 12-leading 19.9 points and seven assists per game, Jackson finished the year as the first player from one of the NCAA’s six major conferences to lead his league in those two categories since Arizona’s Jason Terry did the same in the Pac-10 during the 1998-99 season.
Humbly taking the attention off of himself though, Jackson said after the game, “I’m just extremely proud of my team. The way we played tonight, it was domination… my emotions are really high right now.”
And, as the graduating Jackson passes the torch to Baylor’s next leaders, in Jefferson and Austin, it was Jefferson who put the Bears’ accomplishment into perspective for not only his team, but for the league in which it plays.
“This is the first championship Baylor has won for the men, so that’s something great. And, [it’s] the first NIT [title] for the Big 12. It’s just great to be a part of this team now.”
And, even better for the Bears to finally end a season as champions.