TULSA, Okla. – The NCAA tournament is made for unheralded players like Terry Maston and Al Freeman to come out of nowhere to star for a day.
With huge games off the bench from Maston and Freeman, Baylor no longer has to answer questions about first-round upsets.
Maston amassed 19 points and nine rebounds while Freeman hit 21 points to lead third-seeded Baylor to a 91-73 win over No. 14 New Mexico State in the opening game of the East region Friday afternoon at the BOK Center.
For the first time in three years, the Bears (26-7) avoided a first-round upset after losing to 14th-seeded Georgia State in 2015 and 12th-seeded Yale last season. The Bears will advance to the round of 32 Sunday against USC, a 66-65 first-round winner over SMU on Friday.
“No one wants to leave the tournament early,” said Baylor forward Johnathan Motley, who finished with 15 points and 10 rebounds. “Our ultimate goal was to come in here and just win it. We want to play every game our hardest, just desperate because you lose, you go home. We knew one team was going home today, and we made sure it wasn’t us.”
A key reserve most of the season, Maston had almost disappeared by scoring just two points in Baylor’s previous six games. But he hit nine of 12 shots against the Aggies (28-6) and kept the Bears in the game in the first half with 12 points as Motley played just nine minutes due to foul trouble.
“I knew in the tournament anything could happen, so I was just waiting on my opportunity when my team needed me, and I’m glad I could step up today,” Maston said. ‘They gave me the mid-range jumper and I made a couple and they kept falling for me.”
Freeman started 22 of Baylor’s first 23 games before he was suspended for three games due to violation of team policy. But the junior guard has been a major factor in the last six games with 77 points.
Against the Aggies, he hit six of 10 field goals and all three 3-point shots to come within one point of matching his career high of 22 points against Oregon last season.
“When you see the ball go in a few times you loosen up and you become more free,” Freeman said. “I think early in the season, I was really pressing and wasn’t letting it come to me. The last few weeks I’ve just kept it simple.”
After scoring just four first-half points, Motley finished with his 14th double-double of the season. Jo Lual-Acuil added 16 points and five rebounds while recording three blocks. The Bears were highly efficient offensively by hitting 57.4 percent from the field and 17 of 19 free throws.
Going into halftime with a 40-38 deficit, it appeared the Bears could be headed for a third straight first-round exit in the NCAA tournament. Motley didn’t play the final nine minutes of the first half after getting his second offensive foul.
The Bears would have fallen into a much deeper hole if not for Freeman and Maston coming up big off the bench. Freeman nailed all three of his treys in the first half while Maston drilled six of nine shots. During one stretch, the duo scored 20 straight points for the Bears.
“Al and Terry had monster games and that’s the beauty of having depth,” said Baylor coach Scott Drew. “They’re experienced players. They didn’t want to stop playing and they did a great job of stepping it up, especially when Mot was in foul trouble.”
New Mexico State took the halftime lead after burying six of 14 3-pointers, including several beyond NBA range. But the Bears were confident they could take command in the second half by ratcheting up the defensive intensity that would lead to more transition baskets.
The Bears began the second half with a 13-4 run to open up a 51-44 lead, and New Mexico State never threatened again.
Motley got things rolling by passing the ball to Lual-Acuil for a slam before Ish Wainright flew inside for a followup dunk. After Manu Lecomte drove inside for a basket, Motley stepped outside and drained a 3-pointer.
Freeman followed with four straight free throws to give the Bears a seven-point lead.
Maston continued to be a presence in the paint as he scored on a pass from Motley, drew a foul and hit the free throw for a three-point play. After Maston nailed two more shots and Motley sliced inside for a basket, the Bears stretched their lead to 60-47 with 12 minutes remaining.
“The main thing is we had a lot more energy defensively and we tried to get as many deflections as we can,” Lual-Acuil said. “We got in the passing lanes and built a wall at the rim and made their guards shoot tough shots. When we made stops and got out and ran it and we had Terry playing great and Motley at the rim, we were kind of able to open the game up and make a big run.”
The Bears dominated the boards, 39-27, and collected seven blocked shots. Guards Braxton Huggins and Ian Baker scored 19 points apiece for New Mexico State, but it wasn’t nearly enough once Baylor starters found their groove in the second half after Freeman and Maston set the stage.
“Like Coach Drew says, it’s our depth that makes us so good,” Motley said. “Anyone can step up any night. We know what kind of players Al and Terry are, and they’re both great offensive players.”