KANSAS CITY — Baylor was phenomenal away from the Ferrell Center throughout the regular season, so there was no reason to think anything would change in the Big 12 Conference men’s basketball tournament.
The No. 22 Bears rarely have looked better.
With senior forward Taurean Prince showing off an array of moves in a 24-point, 13-rebound performance, the Bears opened their postseason campaign with a 75-61 victory over No. 23 Texas on Thursday afternoon at Sprint Center.
Prince played like a senior who wants to extend his college career into April as he hit shots from all over the court and made spot-on passes to teammates for baskets.
“I think he’s probably an NBA-level guy,” Texas head coach Shaka Smart said. “He was terrific. I thought his aggressiveness was really good early on, just the way he attacked and was assertive. We allowed him to be too comfortable. When you give a guy like that comfort, he’s going to have a big game.”
After dropping their last two regular season games to No. 6 Oklahoma and No. 9 West Virginia, the 22-10 Bears advance to the Big 12 tournament semifinals against No. 1 Kansas at 6 p.m. Friday.
The Bears appear to be a lock to make the NCAA tournament, but their biggest focus this weekend is to win two more games and capture their first Big 12 tournament title.
“You always want to go into the NCAA tournament having momentum,” said Scott Drew, who won his 250th game at Baylor. “But a chance to play here in Kansas City inspires and motivates you enough. It’s a new chance to cut down nets and win a championship, and the upperclassmen really appreciate that.”
The fifth-seeded Bears split regular season games against fourth-seeded Texas (20-12), taking a 78-64 decision in Austin on Feb. 20. That win helped Baylor go 6-3 in Big 12 road games.
With the stands filled with fans from Kansas, Kansas State and Iowa State, the Sprint Center was decidedly neutral for Baylor and Texas. But the Bears clearly looked more at home as they beat the Longhorns for the fourth straight time in the Big 12 tournament.
Prince spearheaded the Bears with his tremendous all-around performance. He buried seven of 16 field goals, two of four 3-pointers and eight straight free throws to go along with his four assists and two steals.
“The tournament is about bringing intensity and doing whatever we had to do to keep the team alive and in the moment,” Prince said. “We took it upon ourselves to come out with a lot of energy and taking away the 3s, and making sure they felt our pressure.”
With Rico Gathers coming off the bench for 13 points and nine rebounds and Ish Wainright adding eight boards, the Bears dominated the glass by a 46-27 margin. Suffering from a bacterial infection, Gathers scored in double figures for the first time since hitting 20 against Texas on Feb. 1.
The Longhorns shot just 38.3 percent overall and hit five of 16 from 3-point range as they watched their 10-game winning streak in Big 12 tournament openers end. Texas starting guards Isaiah Taylor, Demarcus Holland and Javan Felix went a combined four for 19 and scored 10 points.
“We just wanted to come out flying around, give good ball pressure and play the passing lanes,” Baylor guard Al Freeman said. “We tried to do everything we could to control them on the defensive end and limit their second-chance points as much as possible.”
Trailing 8-6 in the early minutes, the Bears went on a 13-1 run and never trailed again. Prince buried a trey before Lester Medford scored on a drive. King McClure came back with a 3-pointer and Johnathan Motley scored on a baseline drive.
Prince then drove for a basket, drew a foul and hit the free throw for a three-point play to give the Bears a 19-9 lead with 11:10 remaining in the first half.
The Bears kept pushing as Gathers scored on a putback and hit a free throw and Freeman buried a 3-pointer. With Freeman’s drive for a basket, the Bears extended their lead to 31-16 with 4:15 left in the first half.
The Longhorns cut Baylor’s lead to 35-27, but Jake Lindsey nailed a 3-pointer from the left corner at the buzzer to open up an 11-point halftime lead. It was Lindsey’s first 3-pointer in a Big 12 game.
“Right before that shot, I went for a rebound and someone’s head snapped back and popped me right in the nose,” Lindsey said. “So I was trying to clear my face. And then Les (Medford) hit me with a good pass, and I shot it and it went in.”
The Bears extended their lead to 59-40 midway through the second half when Motley got loose for a dunk. Texas got as close as eight before the Bears pulled away again in the final minutes.
“Our team knew any time you’re playing Texas, it means a lot to our fans and a lot to us,” Drew said. “We lost some of our last games against good teams, and I think we were ready to get the losing taste our of our mouth.”
At a glance
What: Big 12 men’s basketball tournament
Where: Sprint Center at Kansas City, Missouri
No. 8 Kansas State 75, No. 9 Oklahoma State 71
No. 10 TCU 67, No. 7 Texas Tech 62
No. 5 Baylor 75, No. 4 Texas 61
No. 1 Kansas 85, Kansas State 63
No. 2 West Virginia 86, No. 10 TCU 66
No. 3 Oklahoma 79, No. 6 Iowa State 76
No 5 Baylor vs. No. 1 Kansas, 6 p.m., ESPN2
No. 2 West Virginia vs. No. 3 Oklahoma, 8:30 p.m., ESPN2
Semifinal winners meet, 5 p.m. on ESPN