LAWRENCE, Kan. — Kansas had everything going its way from the opening tip: Near-perfect shooting, gripping defense and 16,300 fans in an absolute frenzy.
Trailing by 13 in the opening minutes, Baylor could have easily rock chalked it up as just one more loss in a long string at Allen Fieldhouse.
But the Bears composed themselves, locked down on defense, and made enough shots to open up a six-point lead in the closing minutes in one of the toughest places to play in college basketball.
The only thing missing from making it an historic night for the Bears was the finish as No. 10 Kansas scored the last nine points to pull off a 70-67 win Saturday night.
The Bears fell to 0-16 against the Jayhawks in Lawrence. Like last season’s 73-68 loss, they had a great shot to win but just couldn’t close it out. Though they’re 12-7 overall and 2-5 in the Big 12, the Bears still believe they can finish strong and are looking forward to the rematch against the Big 12 leading Jayhawks (16-3, 6-1) at the Ferrell Center on Feb. 10.
“We’re as good as them as a team and we’ll get them back in Waco,” said Baylor guard Manu Lecomte. “We know we can beat them. Obviously we were up by six, but it’s not enough against Kansas because the real good teams never give up. So next time we’ve got to make sure we keep that lead and extend it.”
The Jayhawks nailed eight of their first nine shots to roar to a 20-7 lead in the opening seven minutes and went into halftime with a 38-27 edge. Switching to a four-guard lineup in the second half, the Bears were able to match the Jayhawks’ speed and limited their transition points.
“Early on, they did a great job killing us in transition defense,” said Baylor coach Scott Drew. “We couldn’t see what defense worked because we couldn’t get back to set up anything. I thought our guys did a great job from then on slowing them down in transition. We contested more shots. Defensively we played well enough to win.”
Baylor chipped away at Kansas’ lead and appeared to have all the momentum when it reeled off six straight points on a pair of short jumpers by Lecomte and Jo Lual-Acuil’s layup to open up a 67-61 lead with 2:50 remaining.
The Bears had a shot to extend the lead when Lecomte missed a jumper. Kansas’ Malik Newman drove inside, drew a foul from Lual-Acuil, and nailed the free throw to cut Baylor’s lead to 67-64 with 2:05 remaining.
Lecomte missed a 3-pointer on Baylor’s next possession and Newman drove for another basket to trim Baylor’s lead to 67-66.
On Baylor’s next possession, King McClure tried to drive for a basket but was met by Kansas center Udoka Azubuike in the lane. There was contact on the play as the two players went up, but no foul was called and McClure missed the shot.
Once again, Newman sped downcourt for a layup to give the Jayhawks a 68-67 edge with 1:09 remaining. Newman had a big night with 24 points on seven of 11 field goals and seven straight free throws.
After Lecomte shot a 3-point airball, the Bears got another chance when Azubuike missed two free throws with 17 seconds left. Lecomte tried to score again, this time on a short bank shot. But his shot bounced off the rim and Devonte Graham rebounded for the Jayhawks.
“That was the play,” Lecomte said. “We were trying to get an isolation with me going to the right, trying to finish or find someone. It was almost in, so I thought it was a good look.”
Graham drew a foul and hit both free throws to give the Jayhawks a 70-67 lead. He had a strong all-around game with 15 points, eight rebounds and seven assists.
Baylor had one last chance to set up for a 3-point shot to try to send the game into overtime. But Jake Lindsey’s inbounds pass to Tristan Clark bounced off his hands as the buzzer sounded.
“We needed a 3, so we were just throwing it in, and we were going to kick it out from there,” Drew said. “But obviously you’ve got to come down with it to make a pass, and we didn’t.”
Kansas’ packed house could finally exhale. But the Bears gave the Jayhawks a big scare.
After the Jayhawks drained eight of their first nine shots, they hit just 13 of 43 the rest of the game to finish with a 40.4 shooting percentage.
“We just stuck together,” said Baylor guard Nuni Omot, who scored 14 points off the bench. “We were in a position like this before and we kept our composure and told each other we’re going to be all right. They’re going to make runs, we talked about it before the game. But we stuck together and fought through it.”
Lual-Acuil finished with 14 points and 12 rebounds for the Bears while Lecomte scored 10 but hit just one of eight 3-pointers. After shooting just 30 percent in the first half, the Bears shot 50 percent in the second half.
Free throws were a big difference for the Jayhawks in the second half as they made 13 of 20 compared to eight of 10 for the Bears.
“We got to get to the line,” Drew said. “I’ve got to do a better job getting us plays where we can get to the line instead of settling for jump shots. At the end of the game, free throws make a big difference. Credit them, they did a great job getting to the line and we didn’t.”