FORT WORTH — Since joining the Big 12 in 2012, TCU had been everybody’s punching bag.
But everything’s changed since Jamie Dixon left Pittsburgh to coach his alma mater last year. Now the Horned Frogs are a team no Big 12 opponent wants to see, and they delivered a big blow to Baylor’s NCAA tournament hopes Saturday afternoon.
With point guard Alex Robinson collecting 22 points and six assists, the Horned Frogs played superb basketball down the stretch for an 82-72 win over the Bears before 6,451 fans at Schollmaier Arena.
After losing 11 straight Big 12 games to the Bears, TCU finally broke through with an 81-78 overtime win on Jan. 2 at the Ferrell Center. With the regular season sweep of the Bears, the Horned Frogs (20-9, 8-8) are alone in fifth in the Big 12 and are in prime position to make the NCAA tournament for the first time since 1998.
“Every day I’m coming up with a new first,” said Dixon, who led the Horned Frogs to the NIT championship last season. “The first time we beat them there and now sweeping them. We do have to recognize these guys made a decision to come to TCU when it was down and we were coming into a new conference. What they’ve done in a short amount of time is really remarkable.”
Following their second straight loss, the sixth-place Bears (17-12, 7-9) will likely have to win their last two regular season games against Oklahoma on Tuesday at the Ferrell Center and Kansas State next Saturday in Manhattan to secure their fifth straight NCAA tournament berth.
“The great thing is we have Senior Night coming up,” said Baylor coach Scott Drew. “We have four seniors, and I know we want to put our best foot forward for them, No. 1. And No. 2, as long as the ball is bouncing, the great thing about the Big 12 is every game is a quality-win opportunity.”
Saturday’s game was similar to the first game against TCU as the Bears effectively pounded the ball in the paint. After scoring 28 points in the first game, center Jo Lual-Acuil came back with a 22-point performance in the rematch. Freshman forward Tristan Clark collected 14 points while redshirt freshman Mark Vital added 12 and Terry Maston scored eight.
But the Bears got very little production outside as point guard Manu Lecomte hit one of 10 shots and scored a season-low five points after going one for 11 and scoring eight points in the first meeting against TCU. The Bears hit just two of eight 3-pointers.
“Defenses take away something,” Drew said. “And with us, we thought if we could get it inside, score inside, get them in foul trouble, that would benefit us. They did a good job trapping the post early on. It took us a second to get our legs underneath us, and then we did a good job executing from there the rest of the game. I wish we could have gotten to the line a little bit more because that was effective for us.”
After taking over point guard duties following Jaylen Fisher’s knee injury in January, the Horned Frogs have gone 7-5 with Robinson doing most of the ballhandling. Hitting eight of 10 shots against the Bears, Robinson often drove inside for baskets or dished off to open teammates.
“He’s more of a facilitator, so our game plan was just to make him a scorer,” Clark said. “Today he did real well facilitating and scoring. So we didn’t do our job today.”
The Bears’ defense has ranked among the best in the Big 12, but they couldn’t stop the Horned Frogs in the second half as they shot 69.6 percent overall while draining three of four 3-pointers. Baylor managed to trade baskets most of the second half before the Horned Frogs pulled away in the closing minutes.
“I thought we were a little off offensively (in the first half), but then we come out and shoot 69 percent overall and 75 percent from 3,” Dixon said. “So we were about as good as we can be offensively in the second half. We shoot the 3 well, we make free throws, we get to the foul line pretty well. We rebound and we don’t turn the ball over.”
The Bears took their last lead with a four-point possession with 8:52 remaining. As Vital scored on a tip-in, Lual-Acuil was fouled by former University High School star Kenrich Williams. Lual-Acuil hit both free throws to give the Bears a 57-56 edge.
Kouat Noi answered with a 3-pointer before Lual-Acuil came back to tie the game with a hook shot.
TCU then reeled off six straight points and the Bears never recovered. Robinson hit a pair of free throws and Williams and Desmond Bane drilled outside shots to give the Horned Frogs a 65-59 lead with 6:46 remaining.
The closest the Bears came the rest of the game was when Lual-Acuil hit a pair of free throws to cut TCU’s lead to 68-65 with 4:42 remaining.
But the Horned Frogs scored seven straight points to put it away as Robinson hit a bank shot, Ahmed Hamdy converted a three-point play with a basket and a free throw, and Robinson nailed two free throws to push the lead to 75-65 with 1:17 remaining.
“I thought it was a good game until the last six minutes, and then that’s when they started making their run, making some shots,” Drew said. “We missed a couple and unfortunately we weren’t able to get second-chance points during that time.”