Big 12 power Baylor makes early NCAA Tournament statement

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Gonzaga is the biggest and mightiest of the March Madness Goliaths, undefeated with designs on a perfect season that would put them on a pedestal with Bobby Knight’s 1976 Indiana Hoosiers.

But there lives a formidable Goliath in the South Region that flexed its muscles and remorselessly grabbed the slingshot out of poor David’s hands and broke it over its knee.

The Baylor Bears, top seed in the South Region, are growling again, looking like a legitimate national-championship threat again after waxing Hartford, 79-55, following a pair of COVID-19 pauses that knocked them for a loop this season.

Here’s one advantage the Bears will have over Gonzaga: They won’t have the pressure of trying to make history as the second unbeaten team in the hostile environs of the Hoosier state.

Hartford gave Baylor a game for eight minutes. But once the Bears — set to face Wisconsin in the second round — shook off their NCAA Tournament jitters and their rust, the 6,000 or so fans in Lucas Oil Stadium turned their attention to the end of No. 15 Oral Roberts’ overtime upset of No. 2 Ohio State.

“I think I was the only one not sneaking a peak,” Baylor coach Scott Drew said.

There was no way the Bears (23-2) were going to let the Hawks (15-9) be UMBC from 2018, no way they were going to be Virginia, no way they were going to let any America East champion be only the second 16th seed to upset a No. 1 seed.

The Bears were 18-0 when they lost to Kansas last month following a three-week pause. They lost again to Oklahoma State in the Big 12 Tournament semifinal, after which senior Mark Vital said: “I don’t want to say it like this but we needed that loss in a way. … We came here with the mindset that we were already the champions of the Big 12. We have to change our mindset back to getting hungry.”

Grrrrrr.

Remember, this is the nation’s best 3-point shooting team (41.8 percent). The Bears’ shooters were thrown off somewhat by the cavernous Lucas Oil background (33 percent from Waco), but 27 bench points and a defense that must have felt like the 1985 Bears to the Hawks, giving Baylor 22 points off turnovers, ignited the rout.

“At the end of the day,” Drew said, “we wouldn’t have a chance to advance in this tournament if our defense wasn’t back.”

The basketball gods that had Baylor in their bracket didn’t do Hartford any favors when Hawks guard D.J. Mitchell, a 42 percent 3-point marksman, suffered a left ankle injury seconds after tip-off.

By the time Vital collected his fourth foul with 14:19 left, it was basically over.

“Once we got in a rhythm we stayed there,” said MaCio Teague, who had a game-high 22 points.

An emotional Hartford coach John Gallagher deserves be proud of taking his team to the NCAA Tournament for the first time, and he enjoyed a rewarding embrace with family and friends in the stands when the fairy tale ended.

“So many people in my life and in the Hartford basketball community have waited for this moment for 36 years,” he said. “There’s so many people in the stands I just saw, my children, my wife, my mother and father and my three sisters. I had 25 cousins come down out of the 50. I used 120 tickets.”

There is no shame in losing to Goliath.

“They’re a national championship contender for a reason,” Gallagher said. “I studied, watched 11 games of them. They present problems in a lot of areas. Their length, their size, their shooting ability. They’re a definite championship one or two and they’re probably one of the best one or two teams in the country, them or Gonzaga in my opinion.”

Gonzaga, the top overall seed, on Saturday night will open its March to history, facing a 16th seed of its own. Norfolk State, that No. 16, might be awed. Baylor wouldn’t be.

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