PARADISE ISLAND, Bahamas (AP) — Baylor has finally faced a test. The sixth-placed Bears responded by cleaning up turnovers, hitting the glass and staying a step or two ahead of VCU.
Matthew Mayer scored 15 points to help the Bears hold the Rams 69-61 in Thursday’s Battle 4 Atlantis semifinals, sending Baylor into Friday’s championship game. It marked the first game for the defending national champions decided by less than a dozen points in the young season, and this one had them fighting until the dying seconds to protect their margin.
“It was huge for us,” Mayer said. “Just our first real test, I would say, in terms of a close game at the end. … we have a lot of toughness. I’m just glad we can sort of eliminate that so we can find that out on ourselves .
Freshman Kendall Brown added 14 points for the Bears (6-0), who committed just five second-half turnovers after 13 in the first half against full-court pressure from VCU and trapping. That first-half total surpassed Baylor’s four-game complete tally earlier this season.
“It shows us how connected we are (against) a team like this that can get inside your head and pressure and cause turnovers,” Brown said. “It just shows our composure throughout the game: just stay levelheaded and keep going.”
Baylor also controlled the glass (42-33) and downed 17 offensive boards to finish with a 15-3 advantage in second-chance points.
Vince Williams scored 17 points to lead VCU (3-3), while Stockard had 13 points. The Rams shot 48% after halftime to trail, often within two possessions, but they couldn’t quite get past Baylor.
“I thought sometimes that we were putting Baylor on their heels and putting our style of play on,” VCU coach Mike Rhoades said.
“I just thought sometimes we shot ourselves in the foot. Before you can beat a team like Baylor, you can’t fight. I think sometimes we’ve done that with reckless turnovers, missed assignments as a result of timeouts or dead balls.
Baylor: The Bears are back in the tournament for the first time since winning in 2016. They opened with a 75-63 win over Arizona State for their second win in a week against Pac-12 opponents. They were tested on Thursday, needing free throws from James Akinjo with 14.3 seconds left to keep this one in their grip. It was Baylor’s 12th straight win since last year’s title run in the Indianapolis bubble.
VCU: The Rams beat a power conference opponent in the first round, holding Syracuse to 29% shooting and forcing 16 turnovers in the 67-55 win. VCU also managed to create headaches for Baylor, especially in the first half. But the Rams didn’t quite catch up to the Bears, getting the second-half margin to four points three times and three points once (45-42 near the 11-minute mark) but no more. close in a scheme that held until the end. last minute.
“We couldn’t get over the bump, but we kept fighting until the end of the game,” Williams said.
Baylor led 29-27 and came out of the break with nine straight points. That included a five-point possession with Brown making two free throws after being hit on a flagrant foul by Levi Stockard III, then Mayer finding Flo Thamba with a lane-to-lane pass for a score and three-point play.
Baylor protected that margin, although the Bears struggled to put the game away as the Rams continued to use full-court defense to keep Baylor off the pace.
“He was a killer,” Rhoades said. “We talked about it in the locker room, that they’re known for it this year but in the past, (coming out) of the locker room doing a run. And they certainly did.
Baylor: Plays Michigan State in Friday’s title game.
VCU: Facing No. 22 UConn in Friday’s third-place game.
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