Baylor Turns Past Pain Into New Pride
HOUSTON -- It was billed as the Baptists vs. the Catholics but it was more like lions vs. zebras. Because the chops Baylor showed and the rotten Hail Mary shots that Saint Mary's kept flinging -- well, Saint Mary's had no prayer. No stripes. Sometimes, it happens this way in these NCAA tournament games.
One team burns. The other freezes. Baylor burned en route to leads of 19-7 that turned into 41-15 that finished a 72-49 inferno on Friday night inside Reliant Stadium. It left the Gaels red-faced and extinguished.
St. Mary's entered a 28-5 team that had won its West Coast Conference tournament by ripping Gonzaga by 19 points. It leveled Richmond (by 11) and Villanova (by seven) in NCAA tournament games to reach the final 16. But the roundball "tweets" that Baylor guard Tweety Carter put on them and the playmaking and shot-making of the best player on the floor -- Baylor guard LaceDarius Dunn -- dissolved the Gaels with such force that that it was over quickly after the pre-tip hellos.
St. Mary's picked the wrong day for the worst game of its season. Baylor assisted in creating the misery. When you are the more active team, the quicker team, the one with interior defense that complements perimeter defense ... when you shine in ball-handling and shot-blocking -- all of that and more -- you rule.
What an unforgettable game for Baylor, now 28-7 and one victory short of the Final Four.
Baylor saved something special for Texas.
Its campus is in Waco, Texas, a nearly four-hour drive northwest from here. The Baylor story has been recounted: Player (Carlton Dotson) shoots and kills teammate (Patrick Dennehy) seven years ago. Team and school in shambles. Players bolt. Coach (Dave Bliss) fired for unethical conduct, including illegal payments to players. Coach Scott Drew arrives from Valparaiso and is asked to heal something that looks terminal.
By 2008, Drew had the Bears in the NCAA tournament. Last year, it was an NIT championship game berth.
This bunch was picked to finish 10th this season in the Big 12. Mighty Kansas, the overall No.-1 seeded team in this tournament, seemed an obstacle the Bears could not overcome in the conference and certainly not in this tournament.
Look who is still standing. And the team that is not.
The Baylor players peered into the crowd here at the South Regional and saw friendly faces.
"To see that crowd like that, it put another gear in us," Carter said.
Baylor forward Ekpe Udoh added: "It was like a home game. The whole lower bowl was Baylor fans."
The team, the program, felt like it owed them something. Really, that is a ton of burden to put on young college men.
Though the Baylor tragedy happened long before any of them arrived on campus, it is still their story. Their stigma. They have carried the story, the heartache that goes with it, with them. The labels stick.
You have to do something stupendous, magical to change that.
This is it. They are in the Final Eight. They just shredded a talented team to get there. They can feel it. They can smell it, everyone noticing the new Baylor.
"I feel like everything happens for a reason," said Carter, a senior who came to Baylor four years ago and routinely endured rough nights like the one Saint Mary's experienced here. "I feel like God allows things to happen in our lives for a reason. I think the tragedy happened for a reason. I feel like this is happening for a reason. You see what this team is capable of. You remember what happened at Baylor, but you look with an open heart and open eyes to the future.''
This group has become part of the solution.
So is their coach, whom his players describe as "easy to understand" and "easy to follow."
Drew said he serves his players with humility. He said he does so in the manner of a servant. He challenges them to share that approach among themselves.
"It works," Carter said. "I have never been a part of a team or anything that has so much chemistry and sacrifice and respect for each other. All of that before you get to the talent."
They have plenty of that. Plenty of size and shooters and defenders and ball hawks.
Drew emphasized three elements in the game that pleased him most:
* Field-goal defense: His team choked Saint Mary's in this area, limiting it to 19 converted shots in 54 attempts (35.2 percent). In 3-point shots, Saint Mary's was only 6-of-22 (27.3 percent).
* Rebounding: Drew acknowledged that his team has been a top-10 rebounding group for most of the season and Friday night it snatched plenty, winning by a 41-29 margin. Its 15 offensive rebounds were five more than Saint Mary's managed.
* Ball handling: Fourteen assists for Baylor. Only seven turnovers.
Numbers, though, cannot explain what it is like to bloom at home. To rise so far above gloom and expectations that you create a new day, a new order. This is what Baylor accomplished tonight deep in the heart of Texas.
Final Four in reach. Program redeemed.
"We know how good we are," Udoh said.
No way it matches how good they feel.