Brice Cherry: Injury provides opportunity for Bears to create new identity (or else)

As they opened Saturday’s game against No. 7 Kansas, the Baylor players appeared to hopelessly look around and say “Where’s Tristan?”

Shortly before tipoff, Baylor announced sophomore forward Tristan Clark was out for the season after he was diagnosed with a left knee injury on Wednesday following Tuesday night’s win over No. 20 Iowa State.

After Scott Drew informed his team of the injury on Thursday, the Bears looked lost and shell-shocked in the first 10 minutes against the Jayhawks as they missed their first 15 shots and quickly fell into a 16-point hole.

The Bears eventually regrouped and made it interesting with a desperate late rally, but the Jayhawks hung on for a 73-68 win before a boisterous crowd of 9,091 at the Ferrell Center.

While the Bears made spirited comebacks in both the first and second halves to get back into the game, they could never overcome the Jayhawks’ early 18-2 lead. Without the 6-9 Clark to feed in the post, the Bears shot just 33.3 percent overall while hitting nine of 31 3-pointers.

“Usually, we play through Tristan, and we didn’t play through that,” said Baylor freshman guard Jared Butler, who replaced Clark in the starting lineup and finished with a team-high 14 points and four assists. “So it was kind of different, a different feel. We were trying to find ways to get guys open shots. So it was kind of difficult, and that kind of threw off our rhythm a little bit.”

Kansas Baylor Basketball

Injured Baylor forward Tristan Clark looks on before the start of the game against Kansas.

Since Clark is Baylor’s second-leading scorer with 14.6 points per game while averaging 6.3 rebounds, his absence with his upcoming knee surgery will have major repercussions all season.

There was no faulting the Bears’ effort as they hustled to get offensive boards and collected 26 to Kansas’ four. But Baylor couldn’t overcome poor offensive execution.

“Tristan told us before the game that he couldn’t be out there, so he wanted us to play as hard as we can to crash the boards,” said Baylor forward Mark Vital, who collected 10 points and nine rebounds. “I took that personally and was like man, we’ve got to step up for Tristan. Get the offensive rebounds, defensive rebounds, do everything we can to make it like he’s still out there.”

The Jayhawks (14-2, 3-1) are familiar with the situation the Bears (9-6, 1-2) are in since they recently lost starting center Udoka Azubuike for the season with a wrist injury.

“I understand what Scott and his staff went through,” said Kansas coach Bill Self. “The same thing happened with Doke (Azubuike). Here you have two of the five best big men in our league that are both lost for the season. But it stings you and they may have been stung early. Then when they realized we have nothing to lose and play, they were obviously much better.”

Kansas Baylor Basketball

Kansas guard Ochai Agbaji falls over Baylor guard Mark Vital in the first half.

Kansas Baylor Basketball

Kansas guard LaGerald Vick puts up a jumper over Baylor guard Mario Kegler in the second half.

Baylor’s tallest starter was 6-7 Mario Kegler while Kansas’ tallest starter was 6-9 Dedric Lawson. With Lawson banging inside for 17 points and LaGerald Vick stepping outside to drain six of eight 3-pointers to celebrate his 22nd birthday, the Bears didn’t have an answer for a Kansas offense that shot 54.5 percent overall and hit nine of 16 3-pointers.

“We had one guy on the scouting report that we wanted to not shoot 3’s,” Drew said. “At least we identified the right guy.”

The Bears appeared in disarray at the start as their only scoring in the first 10 minutes was King McClure’s two free throws 76 seconds into the game.

After those free throws, the Jayhawks reeled off 18 straight points. Vick started the streak by draining a 3-pointer before Lawson scored inside and Devon Dotson got loose for a reverse layup.

Then Dotson stepped outside and nailed a 3-pointer before Lawson hit a hook shot. Ochai Agbaji came off the bench to score a pair of baskets, including a dunk on an alley-oop pass from Dotson to give the Jayhawks an 18-2 lead with 10:30 left in the first half.

Instead of sliding deeper into the hole, the Bears answered with an 18-4 run that began with Vital’s putback, Matthew Mayer’s slam and Butler’s 3-pointer. With two more Butler treys and Makai Mason’s free throw, the Bears cut Kansas’ lead to 22-20 with 3:52 left in the first half.

“All year long, these guys have competed,” Drew said. “We haven’t given up all year. And as long as we keep doing that, and as our execution gets better, we’ll be a much better team. The shots came different in our offense with Tristan because we were running different things. That’s the exciting thing of coaching is whatever players you have, trying to put them in positions to be successful.”

Kansas Baylor Basketball

Scott Drew reacts to a play against Kansas in the first half.

The Bears couldn’t maintain their momentum as the Jayhawks closed the first half with a 13-5 run to go into halftime with a 35-25 lead. Vick hit a pair of treys, including a long one with two seconds left in the half.

Throughout the second half, the Jayhawks kept building their lead, eventually stretching it to 64-41 with 6:28 remaining.

But the Bears had one more burst left in them as Vital and freshman center Flo Thamba got loose inside for baskets and Devonte Bandoo nailed a pair of 3-pointers to cut Kansas’ lead to 72-68 with 19.6 seconds remaining.

With Baylor unveiling its press, the Jayhawks looked rattled and made numerous turnovers. But Baylor couldn’t cut deeper into the lead after Lawson hit a free throw with 19 seconds remaining to give the Jayhawks a 73-68 lead.

Butler missed a pair of desperation 3-pointers in the final seconds as Kansas walked away with the win. Now the Bears will try to get used to life without Clark as they make a quick turnaround to face Oklahoma State at 8 p.m. Monday in Stillwater.

“I think we’ve got a lot of talented players,” Drew said. “We’ve got a lot of guys that care about each other, a lot of guys that want to win. So now it’s just putting them in position to be successful. We’ve got to figure that out. We’ll put in new things offensively, defensively, to put these guys in the best position to be successful.”

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