When Baylor romped to a win over Oklahoma on Feb. 27, the seniors thought it would be their last game at the Ferrell Center.
They were banking on making the NCAA tournament, not the NIT.
But now they’re hoping to stay home for a couple of weeks, and jumped off to a strong start as all four Baylor seniors scored in double figures in an 80-59 win over eighth-seeded Wagner in the NIT opener before a small but loud crowd of 1,988 on Tuesday night.
The No. 1-seeded Bears (19-14) managed to put the disappointment of being among the first four teams out of the NCAA tournament behind them. They surged to a 21-9 first-quarter lead and finished by winning the fourth quarter, 27-16.
“It’s tough for all of us,” said Baylor guard Manu Lecomte, who scored a game-high 24 points. “We’ve got winners in the locker room, we’ve got competitors. And we know we’re an NCAA team, but it’s not up to us to decide. Now we’ve moved on, and it’s another goal now. It’s the NIT and that’s what we’re all about now. “
The Bears (19-14) advanced to the second round of the NIT at the Ferrell Center at an undetermined date against the winner of Wednesday night’s game between No. 4 Mississippi State and No. 5 Nebraska.
If the Bears win the second-round game, they’ll host again in the third round with hopes of reaching the NIT semifinals March 27 at New York’s Madison Square Garden.
In the postgame interview room, Lecomte and senior forward Terry Maston wore T-shirts with the image of the New York skyline with the words: “Finish Strong.”
“Obviously, being the first four out in the tournament is tough and you always worry how guys are going to respond,” said Baylor coach Scott Drew. “At the same time you’re really blessed to continue to play basketball. I thought the first quarter was really important to get off to a good start. I thought the fourth quarter was really important to make sure we didn’t give them hope and I thought we got separation.”
The NIT is experimenting with four 10-minute quarters instead of two 20-minute halves. The 3-point arc was extended beyond 22 feet to simulate international rules, and the free throw lane was expanded from 12 to 16 feet.
When asked how the extended 3-point arc affected him, Lecomte said, “I don’t even think about it.”
Lecomte proved it by nailing five of eight 3-pointers while dishing out six assists. Maston collected 13 points and eight rebounds while senior guard Nuni Omot hit 11 points and senior center Jo Lual-Acuil finished with 10 points and three blocks.
The Bears shot 52.6 percent overall and drained 10 of 20 3-pointers while limiting Wagner to 29.6 percent shooting. However, Baylor committed 19 turnovers and was outrebounded by the smaller Seahawks by a 39-37 margin.
“We’ve got to be better in the next two rounds on the boards because that’s something we normally do,” Drew said. “The good thing is we shared the ball. I told our guys at halftime we need to stop sharing it with the other team so much.”
Despite their lack of size, the Seahawks (23-10) were especially active on the offensive glass with a 20-8 rebounding advantage.
“They were fast, and they had a 3-guard playing the 5,” Maston said. “They were really physical and strong. I think they just kind of got after it, and that was one of their strong suits. So I think we just have to put forth more effort pretty much going on.”
The Seahawks stayed within eight late in the third quarter before the Bears took control with their superior talent.
Leading 53-43 at the start of the fourth quarter, Maston and Lual-Acuil scored on tip-ins before A.J. Sumbry scored in the paint for the Seahawks to cut Baylor’s lead to 57-45.
The Bears then went on a 13-2 run to put the game away. King McClure, who scored 10 points, drained a 3-pointer before Lecomte buried a long trey from well beyond NBA range.
Lecomte found Omot for an alley-oop slam before Lual-Acuil pushed inside for a basket. McClure topped the big run with another 3-pointer to stretch Baylor’s lead to 70-47 with 5:30 remaining.
The Bears played with just seven scholarship players in the second half after forward Tristan Clark went out with a sprained foot and guard Jake Lindsey went out with a sprained hip. Their status for the second-round game isn’t yet known.
But Drew thought his team played liked they want to stay in the NIT for an extended run.
“For the upperclassmen, they know it could be their last game,” Drew said. “For the underclassmen they don’t want it to be the upperclassmen’s last game. All that experience you get in a must-win situation really helps. Not only does it help you for the end of this year, but the next year you have that mentality and that experience to where when you’re back to those situations you’re better at it.”