NEW YORK – The Baylor players had a hard time dragging themselves out of their locker room Friday night at Madison Square Garden.
Following their 70-50 loss to South Carolina in the Sweet 16, this would be the last time this group would play together. The realization that this special season was over was starting to dawn on them.
Johnathan Motley, the team’s star, wouldn’t answer questions about possibly declaring for the NBA draft. His heart was still with his teammates. Center Jo Lual-Acuil looked despondent as he bent his 7-0 frame in front of a corner locker.
The Bears’ lone senior, Ish Wainright, spoke up like he always does as the team’s leader. But even he wasn’t his usual jovial, fun loving self.
“It’s going to hurt,” Wainright said. “Nobody likes failure, we’re human beings. But we went farther than anybody outside the team thought. We believed in each other from Day One. This is the best team I’ve been on. Our chemistry and bond is unbreakable.”
Nobody wanted to end the season with such an ugly loss. Frustrated by South Carolina’s physical, relentless defense, the Bears shot a season-low 30.4 percent and scored a season-low 50 points.
The Gamecocks took command with an 18-0 run in the first half to blow out to a 31-15 lead as the Bears missed 11 straight shots. Trailing by 20 early in the second half, the Bears made an attempt to get back into the game when Manu Lecomte buried a pair of 3-pointers to pull within 11.
But Sindarius Thornwell and Duane Notice answered with 3-pointers to stretch South Carolina’s lead to 55-38 midway through the second half. Thornwell lived up to his SEC player of the year status by scoring a game-high 24 points, pulling down six rebounds, blocking two shots and coming up with a pair of steals.
“I’m disappointed we couldn’t have played a better game but some of that credit, a lot of it, goes to South Carolina,” said Baylor coach Scott Drew. “Coach (Frank) Martin did a great job prepping his guys and they really made it tough for us to score, to say the least.”
The Bears finished the season with a 27-8 record, just short of the 28-8 mark they compiled in 2010 in Drew’s first Elite Eight appearance. The Bears set a school record with their 30-8 record in their 2012 run to the Elite Eight.
The 20-point loss was the most lopsided in Drew’s 17 NCAA tournament games and only the second double-digit loss this season. Forcing 29 turnovers, West Virginia laid an 89-68 blowout on the Bears on Jan. 10 in Morgantown.
Perhaps it shouldn’t be surprising that Baylor had such a difficult time against South Carolina because Martin plays a similar style of defense as one of his mentors, West Virginia coach Bob Huggins.
Martin was an assistant under Huggins at Kansas State in 2006-07 before Huggins moved to his alma mater, West Virginia. Taking over as head coach, Martin led the Wildcats to four NCAA tournament appearances in five years before becoming South Carolina’s coach in 2012.
“It’s one of the best defenses that we came across,” Wainright said. “West Virginia has the same defense. But they just executed, they double teamed, triple teamed Motley and made it tough to score the ball every time we caught it. Every time we got a catch, there was somebody right there.”
The third-seeded Bears had visions of making their first Final Four appearance since 1950, and looked like a good bet as the highest remaining seed in the East regional.
Though they fell short of their goal, the Bears enjoyed a great season.
After first-round losses to Georgia State and Yale in the previous two NCAA tournaments, the Bears were only picked fifth in the Big 12 preseason poll. They didn’t get a single vote in the preseason Top 25 in both the Associated Press and coaches polls.
But after winning their first 15 games, the Bears reached No. 1 in the AP poll for the first time in school history on Jan. 9. Playing with tremendous chemistry and depth, Baylor finished in a second place tie with West Virginia and Iowa State in the Big 12 race. They won NCAA tournament games against New Mexico State and USC to advance to the Sweet 16 for the first time since 2014.
In the aftermath of the disappointing loss to South Carolina, Drew made sure his team understood how much it had accomplished.
“We went from receiving no votes in the preseason to the first No. 1 ranking in school history nine weeks later,” Drew said. “That’s something this team will always have. At the same time, they tied a school record for the most regular season wins (25). And more important than that, they have been all we can ask for as far as individuals and the character in which they have represented themselves and our school.”
This season should be a superb springboard for Drew’s 15th season at Baylor. Wainright has exhausted his eligibility and Motley will likely be gone to the NBA, but Baylor will return a load of veteran players who are used to winning at a high level.
Guards Lecomte, Al Freeman, King McClure, Jake Lindsey and Wendell Mitchell will all be back. Lual-Acuil and forwards Terry Maston and Nuni Omot will return to command the paint.
Guard Tyson Jolly and forward Mark Vital will be ready to contribute after redshirting this season. Power forward Tristan Clark should be ready to step in as a freshman.
“We didn’t accomplish everything we wanted this year but we came close,” Lindsey said. “I’m proud of everyone in this locker room. It was a fun year. More than anything we had each other’s backs. Our guys didn’t just look out for themselves. But I think the biggest thing we did was to establish ourselves for the future.”