By Wendell Barnhouse | firstname.lastname@example.org
WACO, Texas - It was a must-win game. Baylor had lost three of its last four, including a hurtful home court loss to Texas Tech. The Bears' backs weren't against the wall; their backs were part of the wall.
If Baylor has any hopes of making the NCAA Tournament - and doesn't want to rely on winning four games in four days at the Phillips 66 Big 12 Men's Championship - beating Texas A&M Saturday night was non-negotiable.
"It was a game we had to win, no doubt," Baylor senior guard LaceDarius Dunn said.
Desperate times and desperate effort made for an ugly, rough-edged game. Both coaches used the phrase "it wasn't pretty." Baylor's 58-51 victory over Texas A&M Saturday night won't end up on a must-buy DVD; as a work of art, it wouldn't even qualify to hang on the family fridge.
None of that mattered to the Bears, who are now 18-10 overall and 7-7 in the Big 12 Conference. Maybe only their noses are above water but at least they're not sinking.
"You got a happy coach here," Baylor's Scott Drew said. His team swept the 17th-ranked Aggies (22-6, 9-5), a team that will be in the NCAA Tournament bracket. That's a bargaining chip for the Bears.
There were 9,338 at the Ferrell Center, the second-largest crowd this season. The Battle of the Brazos rivalry had something to do with that but Baylor Nation sensed its team needed support.
The Bears played with great energy, particularly on the defensive end. What was a Twilight Zone defense for opponents last season made its return. The Aggies struggled mightily. A&M coach Mark Turgeon was shocked to learn his team shot 35.2 percent; it seemed that his team's accuracy was far worse.
"Their zone was fantastic," Turgeon said. "I thought they had six guys out there. Our zone attack wasn't good for most of the game. And it's hard to put pressure on a team when you can't score."
Baylor set the tone early. On A&M's third possession, J'mison Morgan blocked Ray Turner on consecutive shots at the rim. Turgeon started Turner, a 6-8 sophomore, in place of 6-7 senior Nathan Walkup in an effort to better match the Bears' front court size.
"When we defend and rebound like this, we can be pretty good," said freshman Perry Jones III, who attempted four shots against Texas Tech but was 7-of-13 from the field with 16 points and eight rebounds.
Texas A&M had too many empty possessions to win a game where the difference didn't grow to double digits until the final two minutes. In the first half, B.J. Holmes was intentionally fouled; he missed both free throws and the Aggies' failed to convert a point-blank shot on the ensuing possession. Trailing 38-32 early in the second half, Kourtney Roberson was fouled on a dunk attempt; he missed both free throws.
"Baylor made everything difficult for us," said the Aggies' Khris Middleton, who had 12 points (on 4-of-16 shooting) and 10 rebounds. "We had trouble getting looks. When we had good looks but made it tough on ourselves by not converting."
Dunn finished with 16 points but he needed 16 shots. He entered the game needing 28 to become the Big 12's career scoring leader. Baylor fans, his teammates and his coach are accustomed to waiting for Dunn to shoot himself into a hot streak. Or even a luke-warm streak.
His only two 3-pointers of the night came with perfect timing.
The Aggies managed just nine second-half field goals and only had two makes in the first 10 minutes. That allowed Baylor to build a 41-32 lead. But the Aggies had field goals on three consecutive trips in 51 seconds to make it 41-39 with 9:11 to play.
Drew called timeout and eight seconds after play resumed, Dunn drilled a 3-pointer from the left corner to make it 44-39.
"I've got teammates telling me to keep shooting," Dunn explained.
A Dunn three also turned away the Aggies' final charge. Naji Hibbert's 3-pointer made it 48-43 with 3:52 left but with the shot clock winding down, Dunn returned the favor by shooting over Hibbert and making a three.
"We made some mistakes we haven't been making during the last five games," said Turgeon, whose team had surged to third place in the Big 12 thanks to a five-game winning streak. "We didn't do a good job of paying attention to the scouting report."
In the first nine minutes of the second half, the teams combined for 11 turnovers and 12 points. About four minutes later, one stretch had four possessions for each team with a total of five turnovers.
"They're fighting for an NCAA bid," Middleton said. "I don't think that they wanted it more than us. We're trying to finish the season strong."
The Aggies play at Kansas on Wednesday and then close the regular season by playing host to Texas Tech next Saturday.
Baylor is at Oklahoma State Tuesday and plays host to Texas Saturday with ESPN's GameDay visiting. With the GameDay crew in Blacksburg Saturday, an inspired Virginia Tech knocked off top-ranked Duke Saturday night.
"In order for us to win, it's defense and rebounding," Baylor's Quincy Acy said. "We're buying into that. These last couple of games, we've got to bring it."