Next up for Baylor ... Kentucky. If you're going to be the best, you have to beat the best.
The No. 3 seed Bears advanced to their second Elite Eight in the last three seasons with a wire-to-wire 75-70 victory over No. 10 seed Xavier Friday night in Atlanta. Baylor will face the Wildcats (35-2) at 1:20 p.m. Sunday in the South Regional final. Kentucky, the overall No. 1 seed, defeated fourth-seeded Indiana, 102-90, in the second game of the semifinal doubleheader.
(Historical footnote: Baylor lost to Kentucky in the 1948 national championship game.)
Baylor (30-7) took control early against the Musketeers, taking a 20-4 lead in the first six minutes. The Bears surprised Xavier coach Chris Mack; Brady Heslip, who made nine 3-pointers Baylor's previous game, scored twice off drives and Quincy Acy made a 15-foot jumper.
"They put us on our heels early," Mack said. "We wanted to really play off kids that we felt like were drivers, Quincy Acy being one of them. He sticks a 17‑footer. We definitely didn't want Brady Heslip to get any catch‑and‑shoot 3s. He hadn't taken a dribble and scored the entire tournament. What does he do? He goes two chase dribbles to the basket for his first four points.
"When (Acy) starts facing up and hitting jump shots, it's not what the doctor ordered. It's not fair."
Some of that credit also goes to Acy and Perry Jones III. In Baylor's two NCAA games, they combined for 20 points and 28 rebounds. Against Xavier, the duo combined for 34 points and 20 rebounds.
Acy, the only senior in the starting lineup, was dominant with 20 points and 15 rebounds. He had four slams, including one on an out-of-bounds lob pass that was filthy/nasty.
"He's probably one of the best dunkers in the nation," said Baylor point guard Pierre Jackson, who finished with 16 points, 10 assists and just three turnovers. "That's got to be number one on SportsCenter tonight. I approve of that dunk. It was Blake Griffin‑ish."
"Yeah, he's a cage rattler," Mack said.
In reaching the Sweet 16, Xavier had rallied from double-digit deficits. Despite the early deficit, the Musketeers made a charge. A 13-0 run cut Baylor's lead to 33-29 but Jackson used an Acy screen to splash a 3-pointer with eight seconds left before halftime to give the Bears a seven-point lead.
"We kept telling our guys, it's not over," Baylor coach Scott Drew said. "We had to keep building on it and credit them for coming back, as they always do."
The Musketeers were just 3-of-15 from 3-point range; they had made 12-of-25 from behind the line in their two NCAA victories. Drew credited his team's use of a triangle-and-two defense borrowed from Kansas.
"They (Kansas) used it a little bit this year," Drew said. "We practiced it, and it was OK and that's why we threw it out today. It worked for us. It allowed us to stay with their two guards, defend them from the perimeter."
For most of the second half, Baylor maintained its lead but didn't get back to double digits until back-to-back dunks by Acy and a Jackson free throw made it 60-50 with 4:14 remaining.
Xavier made one last run. Tu Holloway's 25-foot 3-pointer with 23 seconds remaining to trim Baylor's lead to 71-68. Heslip, though, made four free throws (and the Bears made their last nine from the line) to move within a victory of the Final Four in school history.
"We're just looking forward to go a little farther and make a little history," Acy said.
For the Baylor athletic program the 2011-12 season has been historic.
"We've been blessed,'' Drew said. "I'll tell you how much after Sunday.''