FORT WORTH — Watching TCU slip into a rare free throw shooting funk, Baylor found a window to rally from a double-digit deficit in Saturday’s Big 12 opener.
After cutting TCU’s lead to three, Baylor sharpshooter Makai Mason had a wide open look with eight seconds remaining. But his 3-point attempt bounced off the rim as the Horned Frogs held on for an 85-81 win before a vocal crowd of 6,396 at Schollmaier Arena.
Trailing 84-81, the Bears set up the play perfectly as Mario Kegler passed to Mason to the right of the top of the arc for a chance to tie the game.
“Rio (Kegler) came off, Tristan (Clark) set two good screens,” Mason said. “Rio had a good pass back to me, wide-open look. Just got to knock it down.”
JD Miller rebounded Mason’s miss and was fouled by King McClure with 4.6 seconds remaining. Miller nailed the first free throw to seal the win as the Horned Frogs survived a major scare to improve to 12-1.
Baylor coach Scott Drew was impressed how the Bears (8-5) rallied after they appeared headed for a blowout loss.
“I’m pleased that down 18 we could have never made a run,” Drew said. “But these guys are going to fight to the end. You just want to pull it out when you get there.”
After the Horned Frogs opened up a 50-31 lead early in the second half, the Bears kept edging closer as TCU missed one free throw after another. The Horned Frogs hit 11 of 14 first-half free throws, but nailed just three of their first 14 free throws in the second half.
“It happens, it’s just like any other shot,” said TCU guard Desmond Bane, who scored a game-high 22 points. “Sometimes they’re going to go and sometimes they’re not going to go. I feel like once we settled in and stepped up to the line we were able to knock them down when it mattered. When we come out here with a W, it’s big. Any win in the Big 12 is big.”
Trailing 80-69, Mark Vital started Baylor’s final run by driving for a basket, drawing a foul and nailing the free throw to cut TCU’s lead to eight with 2:34 remaining. After Alex Robinson’s turnover, Vital took a pass from Kegler and drove for another basket.
When Mason hit a pair of free throws and McClure maneuvered inside for another basket, the Bears trimmed TCU’s lead to 80-78 with 31 seconds remaining. Instead of rolling to an easy win, the Horned Frogs were sweating it out.
“It was just effort,” said Clark, who led the Bears with 18 points while pulling down six rebounds. “In the huddle, I think it was a media timeout, I just got on everybody. And I was like, ‘Coach can’t put up no play, he can’t run a set or do whatever. It’s effort.’ And I feel like our effort picked up later in the second half.”
The Horned Frogs finally regained their touch in the final 25 seconds by hitting five of their last six free throws.
RJ Nembhard drained a pair of free throws for the Horned Frogs, but Mason drove for a basket, drew a foul and hit the free throw for a three-point play as Baylor cut the lead to 82-81 with 17.9 seconds remaining.
With Baylor forced to foul, Robinson nailed both free throws to give the Horned Frogs an 84-81 lead with 16 seconds remaining before the final sequence of events.
The Horned Frogs shot 56.6 percent from the field against a Baylor defense that hadn’t allowed any team to shoot over 50 percent this season. Miller delivered a superb all-around game with 13 points and a game-high 10 rebounds.
With point guard Jaylen Fisher sitting out with a knee injury, Robinson was TCU’s main catalyst as he amassed 18 points and 10 assists. The Horned Frogs came into the game ranked third nationally with 20.1 team assists per game and collected 22 against the Bears.
“They’re one of the best offenses in the country, and I just think we’re one of the best defenses in the country,” Drew said. “And I thought we would be more effective against them. He (Robinson) is second in the nation in assists, and everybody tries to game-plan to stop him because he creates so much offense for everybody else. But at the end of the day, he gets a lot of assists, doesn’t have a lot of turnovers and he’s got guys that make shots.”
After shooting just 40.7 percent in the first half, the Bears broke away for more transition baskets in the second half and shot 56.3 percent. Freshman Matthew Mayer gave the Bears a lift by coming off the bench to hit five of nine shots and score 17 points.
“If Matt didn’t do that, we probably wouldn’t have made the run,” Drew said. “He’s capable like that, and hopefully we can just get more of that consistently from him.”
The Bears host Iowa State on Tuesday at 6 p.m. after the Cyclones romped to a 77-60 win over No. 5 Kansas in Ames on Saturday.