INDIANAPOLIS (AP) — Nearly two decades ago, Scott Drew decided to leave his comfort zone at tiny Valparaiso for the scandal-plagued basketball program at Baylor, explaining to his father that there was nowhere for the Bears to go but up.
Now, they’re one win away from the top.
Led by Jared Butler and the rest of their brilliant backcourt, a defense that refused to give Houston an inch and a coach intent on making the most of his first trip to the Final Four, the Bears roared to a 78-59 victory Saturday night in their first appearance in the NCAA Tournament semifinals in 71 long years.
“Every day you’re grinding, and you don’t really look back. You’re pressing forward,” Drew said afterward, “but I’m so blessed to have these unbelievable players that bought into what we like to do with the program.”
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) got into the act, with five players scoring in double figures. They doubled up Houston after 10 minutes, built a 45-20 lead by halftime and coasted the rest of the way in the first Final Four showdown between schools from the Lone Star State.
They’ll face Gonzaga, the overall No. 1 seed, who defeated upstart UCLA 93 to 90 in overtime Sunday, on Monday night for their first national championship.
“That was one of my goals, to leave a legacy at Baylor,” Butler said, “and you have to win national championships. You have to win. You have to be a great program, be about great things, and that’s what we’re doing.”
Marcus Sasser had 20 points and Quentin Grimes scored 13 for the cold-shooting Cougars (28-4), whose dream path to their first Final Four since 1984 — they faced teams seeded 15th, 10th, 11th and 12th along the way — ended with a whimper.
Their end came against an opponent that spent most of the year ranked No. 2 behind Gonzaga, one that had been focused on reaching the Final Four since the moment last year’s tournament was canceled by the pandemic.
The roughly 8,000 fans that were allowed through the doors, socially distanced in a vast ocean of blue seats, provided a muted soundtrack to the blowout taking place inside the cavernous 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.”
At least, all those leading up to Saturday night.
The Bears controlled the game from the jump, unleashing an early 14-3 run fueled by the crisp passing, silky shooting and dastardly defense that made them unbeatable before a 23-day COVID-19 pause late in the regular season.
When the Cougars finally scored, the Bears ripped off another 16-3 run later in the first half, carving up the nation’s top 3-point field-goal defense with ruthless efficiency. By the time Davion Mitchell knocked down back-to-back 3-pointers to end the first half, the Bears had a 45-20 lead that felt insurmountable.
“I don’t think I’ve seen a team with five guards at that level, no drop-off,” Sampson said, “and they were good at both ends of the floor.”