WACO, Texas – If you believe there are existential forces that swirl over and around the competition we call college sports, then you might believe that The Basketball Gods are smiling on Texas and frowning on Baylor.
Texas continued its surprising surge, winning its fifth consecutive Big 12 Conference game, with an impressive 74-60 victory over No. 24 Baylor Saturday. The Bears, at one point ranked No. 7 and 12-1 overall, lost its fourth consecutive game.
The Longhorns (16-4, 5-2) are poised to break into the top 25 rankings this week. Last year’s team finished with 16 victories. This season UT is proving that it is a team worth respect.
“I was just talking to the team about this,” said Texas coach Rick Barnes, whose team set a school record with its third consecutive victory over a ranked team. "I said, `Guys, what's fun about this is if you want to be really good, when you really find out how tough you are is when people are now coming after you," he said. "But I still think we are the kind of team that we have to stay on edge all the time."
Baylor, which won the National Invitation Tournament last year, is now going to be challenged to finish in the top half of the Big 12 standings.
"Last year at this time we were 5-1, and we ended up playing in the NIT,” said Bears guard Gary Franklin, who scored a team-high 14 points. “I'd rather be in this position than be undefeated and lose the first game in the NCAA tournament.”
The Longhorns winning by double digits was atypical as 24 of 33 Big 12 games have been decided by 11 or fewer points. Texas went on the road and faced a team that had won seven of the last 10 meetings in the series that was desperate for a victory.
Freshman point guard Isaiah Taylor, who had a total of 26 points in the last three games, scored a career-high 27 points for UT. Whenever the Longhorns needed an offensive boost, he used his ability to drive through the sequoias in the Baylor zone to score.
“That’s my game getting to the lane, shooting floater,” Taylor said. “Coach said to not let the ball get stagnant. When you move the ball against the zones, it opens up lanes to drive. Driving is the best part of my game.”
And driving against a zone usually results in a turnover or a blocked shot. However, Taylor’s quickness and ability to loft soft shots made it appear the Bears were standing in cement. Whether it was feather soft shots that bounced off the rim and through the net or a soft-kiss bank shot, Taylor made 10 of 18 shots to go along with three assists and three steals.
“We knew that Taylor likes to drive and he likes to drive to his left,” Baylor coach Scott Drew said. “We couldn’t stop him from driving to his left and he made some tough shots.”
Javan Felix, the Longhorns’ second-leading scorer, didn’t score until 7:33 remained. Leading scorer Jonathan Holmes had 14 points with eight rebounds while Cameron Ridley had eight points and 14 rebounds.
“On this team we have a lot of guys who can carry the load,” Taylor said. “We have some offensive weapons.”
Texas survived foul trouble in the first half. The Longhorns had five players with two fouls and one with three at halftime. Over the last 6:17, Taylor was the only starter on the floor. The Longhorns never gave up the lead and Martez Walker’s 3-pointer on their final possession provided a 31-27 lead.
“That was maybe the most important part of the game,” said Barnes, whose team’s next game is at home Saturday against Kansas. “Sometimes, it’s difficult to be aggressive on defense and not foul. We switched some defenses there late in the half and the second half we did a better job of defending without fouling.”
Texas took control in the first seven minutes of the second half with a three-point play by Taylor and two free throws by Ridley pushed the UT lead to 46-34 with 13:44 to play. Baylor never got closer than seven points
The Bears’ 32.1 percent shooting prevented any significant rallies. Post players Isaiah Austin, Cory Jefferson and Rico Gathers combined to miss 16 of 21 shots.
“I thought we were rushing and hurrying shots in the first half,” Drew said. “I think Texas deserves credit for that, their defense did a great job.
“Last year at this time we were 5-1 and thought everything was great and we finished 9-9. This year, we're 1-5 and we'd rather finish well then start well so, we'll see what we can do."