INDIANAPOLIS — By halftime of Baylor’s 78-59 win over Houston in the men’s basketball Final Four on Saturday, it was clear the two programs, one from the Big 12 and another from the American Athletic Conference, were operating on two different levels.
Baylor’s 45-20 edge entering the break was the largest halftime lead in a Final Four game in 18 years and the fourth largest in Final Four history, according to ESPN Stats & Information research. Marcus Sasser had scored 17 points at that juncture. The rest of the Cougars had combined for just three by halftime.
Jared Butler finished with 17 points, five players finished with double figures, and Baylor made 46% of its 3-pointers.
On Saturday, Baylor did all of the things that have made it a national title contender and the game’s most dominant program since the start of the 2019-2020 season. The Bears have lost just five games since Nov. 8, 2019.
Baylor now prepares for a potential matchup with Gonzaga on Monday — if the Bulldogs can beat UCLA in the second national semifinal game on Saturday. In December, Baylor and Gonzaga were set to meet before the game was canceled hours before tipoff because of positive COVID-19 tests within Gonzaga’s program.
Since then, the Bulldogs have marched toward history, preserving their unblemished resume and pursuit of the first perfect season in 45 years. Meanwhile, Baylor kept pace with the Bulldogs until a three-week pause due to positive coronavirus cases seemed to disrupt the program’s mojo.
Baylor lost at Kansas in its second game back before losing to Oklahoma State in the Big 12 tournament semifinals. The latter, per Scott Drew, actually helped Baylor regain its focus.
“We lost to a very good Oklahoma State team in our conference tournament, which was a blessing, looking back, because we were able to practice and really get better at our defense, which at the end of the day we wouldn’t be here today if we in the second half didn’t lock down and do a really great job down that stretch,” Drew said after his team’s win over Arkansas in the Elite Eight.
This has been an improbable run for Drew at Baylor. When he arrived in 2003, the program was stuck in one of the worst scandals the sport had ever seen. After Carlton Dotson was arrested for murdering teammate Patrick Dennehy, former coach Dave Bliss resigned after an assistant caught him on tape encouraging players to create a story about Dennehy that would have painted him as a drug dealer to throw investigators off the scent of his illegal actions, which included improper payments to players, including Dennehy.
“I’m extremely excited about being a part of the Baylor family,” Drew said at his introductory news conference in 2003. He was hired shortly after Bliss resigned and asked to perform a miracle on a program that had not been to a Final Four since 1950.
In Drew’s third season, Baylor finished 4-13 amid major NCAA sanctions from the Bliss era, including a ban on nonconference games.
Saturday’s game, however, sealed the program’s first national title game appearance since 1948. It also added another chapter to Drew’s narrative.
Baylor wasn’t just a struggling program when he arrived. It had been hit with an unprecedented set of challenges. But his patience has paid off.
Even when his team had to pay the price for a prior coach’s actions, Drew stayed positive.
“The light is definitely at the end of the tunnel,” Drew said in 2005.
On Monday, at Lucas Oil Stadium in Indianapolis, Baylor and Drew aim to shine bright again.