Baylor took no comfort in playing its closest game ever at Allen Fieldhouse on Wednesday night.
If anything, the Bears’ 73-68 loss to Kansas stung worse than any of the previous 14 losses in Lawrence. It was pretty rare for the No. 2 Bears to come into No. 3 Kansas’ shrine as the higher ranked team in the Associated Press poll.
It had only happened once before, in 2012, and No. 7 Kansas mopped up the No. 3 Bears to the tune of 92-74.
A Baylor team that had become masterful at closing games couldn’t do it this time. Midway through the Big 12 race, the 12-time defending champion Jayhawks took their usual spot atop the standings with an 8-1 record while Baylor is second at 7-2.
The Bears have won Big 12 road games at Kansas State, TCU and Oklahoma this season, and rallied from a 15-point deficit to beat Mississippi last weekend in Oxford.
But beating Kansas at Allen Fieldhouse is a whole different animal. There are 16,300 basketball crazy fans smothering you, not to mention the superb team Kansas coach Bill Self puts on the floor every season.
The Bears built a 34-28 halftime behind a 14-point outburst by forward Johnathan Motley. Baylor had a clear size advantage in the paint, and Motley, Terry Maston and Jo Lual-Acuil took advantage of it.
But the Jayhawks played much more aggressively on the defensive end in the second half, and limited Motley to two second-half points.
Meanwhile, Kansas point guard Frank Mason showed why he’s a leading national player of the year candidate by taking over the game in the second half. Mason finished with 19 points, six assists and three steals, and was flawless at the free throw line, as he hit all 12 attempts.
Mason exhibited his all-around value on the game’s decisive play. After the Jayhawks took a 71-68 lead, the Bears had one last chance to send the game into overtime if they could hit a 3-pointer.
But Mason, Josh Jackson and Svi Mykhailiuk were all over Motley and Manu Lecomte on the perimeter. Motley’s pass glanced off Lecomte’s hands out of bounds with one second remaining, giving the Jayhawks the ball.
Mason then drained a pair of free throws to seal Baylor coach Scott Drew’s 10th straight loss at Allen Fieldhouse, which is one more than Self has in 14 seasons in the historic building.
“The bottom line is, did we guard the last two and a half minutes?” Self said. “When we went back man-to-man I thought our guys hunkered down and guarded probably about as good of a stretch as we’ve had all year, and of course we had to in order to win the game.”
Drew was disappointed the Bears didn’t get the ball to Motley more in the second half after his dominating first half.
“I thought we did a bad job of getting Motley the ball,” Drew said. “Obviously, they started doubling up on him the first half and that carried over into the second half. We turned it over some before we could get it to him. They played some zone, in which we didn’t get it to him as much as we needed to as well.”
Kansas held a huge free throw advantage by hitting 20 of 27 compared to just four of six by the Bears. But just as devastating to the Bears was the loss of Jake Lindsey, who fouled out early in the second half.
Lindsey had done a solid job guarding Jackson, Kansas’ freshman phenom. But with Lindsey on the sideline, Jackson was unstoppable down the stretch and finished with 23 points and 10 rebounds.
Despite the loss, the Bears are 20-2 overall and still have a tremendous shot to win their first Big 12 title. The Feb. 18 rematch against Kansas at the Ferrell Center has long been sold out, and the atmosphere will be electric.
Drew often notes that the Jayhawks win the Big 12 every year because they rarely lose home games. Their win over the Bears was their 51st straight at Allen Fieldhouse.
The Bears have to do the same to unseat the Jayhawks. They’ve been perfect at home so far this season, winning 13 straight games, including all four in the Big 12. Baylor will host Kansas State on Saturday, the first of five home games left on the schedule.
“The beauty of the Big 12 is every game counts the same, you play everybody twice,” Drew said. “We’re trying to improve each day and make sure in March we’re playing our best basketball. But we have to be better in the second half to win conference.”
Baylor has all the pieces to win a title: Great balance, depth, a lockdown defense and chemistry. Mason was certainly impressed with the Bears after Kansas squeaked out Wednesday night’s win.
“They are a great team,” Mason said. “Their coach is a great coach and I think he does a good job using their athletic abilities, and they showed that throughout the game. I think when we go down to Waco, it will be a great game.”