INDIANAPOLIS (AP) — Nearly two decades ago, Scott Drew decided to leave his comfort zone at tiny Valparaiso for the scandal-plagued basketball program at Baylor, explaining to his father that there was nowhere for the Bears to go but up.
Now, they’re one win away from the top.
Led by Jared Butler and the rest of their brilliant backcourt, a defense that refused to give Houston an inch and a coach intent on making the most of his first trip to the Final Four, the Bears roared to a 78-59 victory Saturday night in their first appearance in the NCAA Tournament semifinals in 71 long years.
“Every day you're grinding, and you don't really look back. You're pressing forward,” Drew said, “but I'm so blessed to have these unbelievable players that bought into what we like to do with the program.”
Or, as Butler put it: “This is what we came to Baylor to do.”
Butler scored all 17 of his points in the first half, but just about everyone from Baylor (27-2) got into the act, with five players scoring in double figures. They built a 45-20 lead by halftime and coasted the rest of the way in the first Final Four showdown between schools from the Lone Star State.
Next up for the Bears is Gonzaga, the overall No. 1 seed, which beat UCLA 93-90 when Jalen Suggs banked in a buzzer-beater in overtime. Monday night's championship is a matchup that was supposed to take place in December, but that game was called off hours before tipoff due to a COVID-19 outbreak within the Bulldogs program.
“They got pros, we got pros. They win a lot of games, we win a lot of games,” Butler said. "I think we match up pretty well."
Better than Houston did with them.
Marcus Sasser had 20 points and Quentin Grimes 13 for the cold-shooting Cougars (28-4), whose dream path to their first Final Four since 1984 — they faced teams seeded 15th, 10th, 11th and 12th along the way — ended with a whimper against a team that spent most of the season ranked No. 2 in the nation behind Gonzaga.
“We had a great run,” Sasser said as he choked back tears. “Just fell short this year.”
Butler said this week that Baylor had been focused squarely on the Final Four since the moment last year's tournament was canceled by the pandemic. And for Drew, the wait goes back even longer.
He took over a program 18 years ago embroiled in arguably the biggest controversy in college basketball history: the graphic shooting death of player Patrick Dennehy, his teammate Devon Dotson pleading guilty to his murder, attempts by then-coach Dave Bliss to cover it all up and NCAA sanctions that lasted well into Drew's own tenure.
Yet somehow, the son of longtime Valpo coach Homer Drew could always picture the very scene that unfolded Saturday night: His team playing selflessly, almost effortlessly, never once feeling the pressure of college basketball's biggest stage, then celebrating their success at midcourt when the final buzzer sounded.
Well, there were a couple things Drew probably didn't picture.
Instead of 70,000 fans reaching to the rafters, the Bears were cheered in the lower bowl by thousands of cardboard cutouts — the late Georgetown coach John Thompson, New Mexico State mascot Pistol Pete and everyone in between — due to COVID-19 measures that have forced them to live in a bubble for the last three weeks.
The roughly 8,000 fans that were allowed through the doors, socially distanced in a vast ocean of blue seats, provided a muted soundtrack to the blowout taking place inside the cavernous home of the Indianapolis Colts.
“This was probably the toughest year for any of us,” Houston coach Kelvin Sampson said, “and not just the bubble here but COVID challenges, isolation, being quarantined, social distancing, masks — this was quite a year. But you know, the sting of this will leave them. Days will turn into weeks, weeks into months, and what they'll remember is the memories.”
At least, all those leading up to Saturday night.
The Bears controlled the game from the jump, unleashing an early 14-3 run fueled by the crisp passing, silky shooting and dastardly defense that made them unbeatable before a 23-day COVID-19 pause late in the regular season.
When the Cougars finally scored, the Bears ripped off another 16-3 run later in the first half, carving up the nation's top 3-point field-goal defense with ruthless efficiency. By the time Davion Mitchell knocked down back-to-back 3-pointers to end the first half, the Bears had a 45-20 lead that felt insurmountable.
“I don't think I've seen a team with five guards at that level, no drop-off," Sampson said, “and they were good at both ends of the floor.”
Sasser did everything he could to keep Houston alive, hitting five 3-pointers and scoring 17 himself. But the rest of the Cougars were 1 of 15 from the field, including their All-American guard Grimes (0 for 5) and DeJon Jarreau (1 for 7), who earned MVP honors in the Midwest Region.
Sampson, whose reputation for being a master tactician was stretched to the limit, tried to get the guard-heavy Cougars to go to the basket more in the second half. But nothing seemed to work.
“We came out of the locker room and competed,” Sampson said with a shake of his head, “but Baylor is the best team we've played. They may be the best team we've played in the seven years I've been here.”
Meanwhile, the big cushion down the stretch gave the Bears — mullet-haired Matthew Mayer, MaCio Teague and Jonathan Tchamwa Tchatchoua in their bright pink sneakers, Butler and Mitchell and the rest of their guys lounging on the bench — plenty of time to celebrate the program's second trip to the national title game.
“It hasn't sunk in yet, to be honest with you,” Butler said. “I think it'll sink in later in life, or two months from now, and I'll think, ‘Wow, we were in the national title game.’ Or next year when I watch it, I'll think, ‘Wow, we were there.’”
More AP college basketball: http://apnews.com/hub/College-basketball and http://www.twitter.com/AP_Top25