Baylor coach Scott Drew was beginning to wonder if his team was going to see the plus side of 60 again.
Before Saturday night’s game against New Orleans, the Bears had gone three straight games without hitting the big 6-0. Remarkably, the Bears beat two Pac-12 teams — Arizona and Oregon — during that span while losing to SFA.
After a slow start, the Bears found their offensive mojo against the Privateers and raced to an 84-44 win at the Ferrell Center in their final nonconference tuneup.
The Bears (8-4) will open Big 12 play against TCU on Jan. 5 in Fort Worth, and hope they can continue to deliver the offensive firepower they showed against New Orleans (5-6).
“What we wanted to do was keep the defense where it’s been, because it’s been phenomenal, and then add to the offense,” Drew said. “And I think our offense is slowly but surely starting to catch up. We’ll keep grinding away with that. The one area that we wanted to work on was our transition offense, and I think we got a little bit better in that.”
Baylor’s point guards both played outstanding games as Jared Butler collected 16 points and a season-high six assists while Makai Mason finished with 13 points and five assists. The Bears amassed a season-high 22 assists as they revved up their fast break.
“Seeing shots falling is going to help us,” Butler said. “A lot of the assists will carry into the Big 12. Playing in transition, we’re going to want to play that way more often. We’re going to want to get out and run more often.”
Hobbled by an ankle injury all season, Mason threw down a two-handed dunk when he corralled a deflected pass from Butler off the backboard with 15:04 remaining.
Mason’s teammates went nuts. It was his first dunk since his sophomore year at Yale in 2015-16.
“Stars aligned and JB threw off the backboard a nice pass to me, and I was able to get up a little bit,” Mason said. “Two hands for safety every time, that’s all it is.”
Drew thought the dunk was a great moment for Mason, especially since he’s battled so many injuries throughout his college career.
“Well, his dad sent a lot of YouTube clips where he was a lot higher than that,” Drew said. “I don’t know if it was an 8-foot rim, a 9-foot rim, or maybe it was a healthy Makai. But he’s a very good athlete. Two years being banged up, he’s lost some inches off his vertical. So I was glad he was able to get a dunk.”
The Bears shot 52.5 percent overall and hit 10 of 25 from 3-point range. Tristan Clark improved his nation’s best accuracy to 78.0 as he hit eight of nine shots and finished with 17 points and 12 rebounds.
After missing the first six games for an unspecified violation of team rules, sophomore forward Mario Kegler played his most consistent game with 10 points and eight boards while nailing five of nine shots.
“He (Kegler) definitely looked like he was having fun out there,” Clark said. “He gave everybody energy from the get-go. He looked good out there and it’s just going to pick up each game.”
Baylor’s defense has been superb all season and limited the Privateers to a 26.2 shooting percentage while collecting 14 steals. Failing to penetrate into the lane, many of the Privateers’ points came outside as they hit seven of 22 3-pointers.
The Bears amassed 12 blocked shots with Clark leading the way with five.
“Coming into conference, you would think defensively you’re pleased with a lot of the areas,” Drew said. “And defense travels, so it gives you a chance to win. Obviously in Big 12 play, you play teams that are much more familiar with what you do offensively and defensively. And you’re facing players that have played against each other for several years in some cases.”
During the opening minutes, it looked questionable whether the Bears would score 40 points. With Ezekiel Charles and Bryson Robinson hitting 3-pointers, the Privateers were leading 10-8 before the Bears took command with a 14-0 run.
Clark and Kegler began the streak by scoring on putbacks before Mason spotted King McClure for a basket. McClure and Mason then stepped outside and drained 3-pointers. Mason’s layup gave the Bears a 22-10 lead with 5:49 left in the first half.
Robinson finally broke Baylor’s streak by nailing a 3-pointer, but the Bears continued to stay hot as Mason buried another 3-pointer and Butler scored on a layup. McClure hit another trey before Kegler and Clark got loose for slams as the Bears went into halftime with a 37-21 lead.
With Mason finding open teammates, Kegler and Clark scored inside to open the second half. Butler nailed a 3-pointer before Mason got loose for his two-handed dunk to give the Bears a 48-21 lead with 15:04 remaining.
The Bears continued to extend their lead throughout the second half as Devonte Bandoo hit a pair of treys while Matthew Mayer and Darius Allen each buried a trey.
Drew got 36 points from his bench, which should be a good sign heading into the Big 12.
“That’s really important because in Big 12 play you’re going to have to have production off the bench,” Drew said. “People have to come in with confidence and know what they’re doing. And I think this game will definitely help with that.”