TULSA, Okla. – Baylor is headed to Madison Square Garden and this time it’s not for the NIT.
The Bears played for two NIT championships at New York’s Madison Square Garden, finishing as the runner-up in 2009 and winning the championship in 2013. But this time Baylor (27-7) will play at the famous arena in the NCAA tournament East semifinals against seventh-seeded South Carolina on Friday.
With two more wins, the Bears will reach the Final Four.
“It means a lot to play there, just for the history of that place,” said Baylor forward Johnathan Motley who finished with 19 points and 10 rebounds. “To win there would mean the world to me. I’m thankful for the opportunity and I want to take advantage of it.”
After losing in the first round of the NCAA tournament in 2015 and 2016, the Bears will make their first Sweet 16 appearance since 2014. It will mark the fourth Sweet 16 appearance for coach Scott Drew who led the Bears to Elite Eight appearances in 2010 and 2012.
“I used to watch the NCAA tournament on TV and had never played a game there before this year, so it’s a blessing,” said Lecomte, who played two seasons at Miami before redshirting at Baylor last year. “You dream about that.”
The Trojans (26-10) have been comeback kings all season as they’ve rallied from double-digit deficits to win 13 times. They rallied from 17 points down in the second half to beat Providence in the NCAA tournament play-in game before rallying from 12 down against SMU to pull off a 66-65 win on Friday.
Trailing Baylor 36-26 late in the first half, the Trojans rallied to take a 67-65 lead with a pair of free throws by De’Anthony Melton with 4:57 remaining.
Scoreless after missing his first six field goal attempts, Lecomte took over the game for the Bears by scoring all 12 of his points the rest of the way.
Lecomte drained a 3-pointer at the top of the arc and drew a foul by Elijah Stewart. He nailed the free throw to complete a four-point play to give the Bears a 69-67 lead with 4:39 remaining.
Lecomte then stole the ball from Jordan McLaughlin who fouled Lecomte. He nailed both free throws.
With 3:54 remaining, Lecomte drove to the basket to push Baylor’s lead to 73-67. Lecomte has started Baylor’s two NCAA tournament games after missing the last two regular season games with a sprained ankle.
“I just had to pick it up because I had been struggling,” Lecomte said. “But my coaches and teammates kept believing in me and they trusted me with the ball in my hands, so I just had to go out there and play. I know I’m a great shooter.”
USC’s Chimezie Metu drove for a basket, drew a foul and hit the free throw to cut Baylor’s lead to 73-70 with 3:36 remaining.
Terry Maston then nailed a free throw and blocked Jordan McLaughlin’s shot. For the second straight NCAA tournament game, Maston amassed 19 points and nine rebounds after he put up those numbers in Friday’s 91-73 win over New Mexico State.
Lecomte then drove inside for another basket to push Baylor’s lead to 76-70 with 2:24 remaining. After Metu scored four points for USC, Lecomte came through with another drive for a basket to push the lead to 78-74.
“We see Manu practice every day,” Drew said. “We feel great because we know more are going to go in than not. You can affect the game even if you’re not making shots, and Manu does a great job feeding the post. What I’ve really been impressed with is his humility. He cares about his teammates.”
The Bears shot 50.8 percent overall and got a big game from King McClure who nailed five of eight 3-pointers and scored 17 points. Baylor also dominated the boards, 34-23, and overcame a 28-point performance by Metu.
With McClure nailing four 3-pointers and scoring 14 points, the Bears led by as much as 10 points and took a 36-31 halftime lead.
While Bennie Boatright nailed a pair of early 3-pointers and scored USC’s first eight points, McClure hit two early treys to pull Baylor into an 8-8 tie.
The Bears took command in the first half with a 10-0 run to grab an 18-10 lead.
Maston started Baylor’s 10-0 run with a pair of free throws before McClure stole the ball and passed to Ish Wainright for a slam. Motley scored a pair of baskets in the paint and Maston completed the run with a short jumper.
Maston remained hot by hitting two more baskets and Jake Lindsey got loose for a layup. McClure took over the scoring again with a layup and 3-pointer.
Motley delivered one of his most impressive slams of the season over Metu before McClure drained his fourth 3-pointer and Jo Lual-Acuil got inside for a dunk to stretch Baylor’s lead to 36-26.
Metu scored USC’s final five points of the first half with a drive and free throw followed by a turnaround jumper.
The Trojans made it a 10-0 run by scoring the first five points of the second half as Boatright drained a 3-pointer and Metu drilled an outside shot to pull into a 36-26 tie.
From that point, the game went back and forth. The Bears grabbed a 48-44 lead when Motley drove to the basket, drew a foul and hit a free throw. But USC tied it with Boatright’s outside shot and McLaughlin’s drive for a basket.