INDIANAPOLIS — Baylor seemed to lose some of its defensive mojo during a three-week COVID-19 pause. The rotations, not as sharp. The closeouts, not quite as close.
The Bears have their groove back and it couldn’t have come at a better time. They’re going to need it.
Baylor shut down Houston in a suffocating first half and cruised into its first national championship game since 1948, throttling the Cougars 78-59 Saturday night.
The Bears will face top-ranked and overall No. 1 seed Gonzaga, which beat UCLA 93-90 in overtime on one of the greatest shots in NCAA Tournament history. Jalen Suggs hit it, taking one dribble after crossing half court and burying a 3-pointer to give the Zags a shot at becoming the first undefeated team since Indiana in 1976.
Baylor will try to apply its lockdown defense on the Bulldogs on Monday night.
“It’s starting to feel like we’re back to where we were before the pause,” said Baylor’s Jared Butler, who had 17 points. “It’s great that this is the right time. We thought it was the worst thing possible when we stopped and it was a three-week break, but I think it worked out perfectly for us.”
Baylor (27-2) made a mockery of the first Final Four game of night, using an 18-3 run to build a 25-point halftime lead. The Bears had five players score in double figures and made 11 3-pointers to earn a spot in Monday’s championship game against Gonzaga.
Their defense also put on quite a show.
Flying around Lucas Oil Stadium, the Bears had the Cougars (28-4) stumbling across the floor with wave after wave of defenders who can guard any position, any spot on the floor. Baylor also limited the nation’s best offensive rebounding team, nearly matching Houston (14-13) on the glass.
A defensive demolition that bodes well for the title game against Gonzaga.
“We were prepared,” Baylor coach Scott Drew said. “Our guys did a great job locking in on assignments and tendencies.”
Questions arose about the Bears’ defense after they didn’t look quite as sharp after the COVID-19 pause. Baylor found its flow once the NCAA Tournament started, stifling one opponent after another while winning it first four games by nearly 15 points per game.
The Bears’ first Final Four in 71 years gave them an extra jolt of energy.
Baylor was downright unbearable against Houston, so fast on rotations it appeared there were six Bears on the floor at times. Baylor made every shot a chore for Houston during a overwhelming first half, switching or trapping ball screens to prevent open looks and collapsing in the paint whenever the Cougars did break free.
Marcus Sasser found the seams in Baylor’s perimeter defense, scoring 17 points on 5-of-7 shooting from 3 in the first half. The rest of the Cougars combined for three points, with only DeJon Jarreau making a bucket among Houston’s other 15 attempts.
Quentin Grimes, Houston’s leading scorer and a third-team All-American, had no points and missed all five of his first-half shots. Mitchell and Vital were responsible on that end of Baylor’s dominance, taking turns hounding him every step. He ended up with 13 points, just 1 for 8 from the 3-point arc.
The Cougars found a bit of rhythm in the second half, too. Not enough to make up the massive deficit caused, in large part, by Baylor’s defensive display.
“Baylor is clearly the best team that we’ve played,” Houston coach Kelvin Sampson said. “They may be the best team we’ve played in the seven years I’ve been here.”
UCLA’s upset bid against college basketball’s most efficient team hinged on two big factors: bogging down the game and making shots.
The Bruins (22-10) did both to perfection in the first half.
The bogging down came via the slow roll. With coach Mick Cronin giving slow down hand gestures, UCLA refused to run even when it had opportunities and methodically worked its offense in half court sets.
The shot making part is something UCLA has been doing all through the bracket. Tough shots have fallen since the Bruins arrived in Indy and they kept dropping in the Final Four — 15 of 26, 4 of 7 from 3.
All those shots going in meant fewer rebounds, in turn meaning fewer opportunities for the Bulldogs to get out and do best: run. Gonzaga made 17 of 28 shots, but only led 45-44 at halftime.
The Zags (31-0) were in a similar position in the West Coast Conference Tournament title game. They trailed by 14 in the first half, found their rhythm and won by 10.
The Bruins wouldn’t let it happen to them. They kept making shots, taking it down to the wire.
Drew Timme took a late charge against Johnny Juzang in regulation and Suggs provided the did-that-just-happen flourish with his 3 at the buzzer.
A miracle finish, setting up what is sure to be a mesmerizing title game between what’s been the two best teams all season.