By Wendell Barnhouse | email@example.com
Big 12 Sports.com Correspondent
OKLAHOMA CITY, Okla. - If someone had told you in December that Baylor would beat Kansas in the Phillips 66 Big 12 Men's Championship, you wouldn't have called the white coats. The Bears were predicted to finish third and the Jayhawks were rebuilding.
If someone had said Baylor would beat Texas ... ever ... then that would have been a crazy statement.
The ninth-seeded Bears (20-13) kept their NCAA Tournament hopes alive with a gritty, had-to-have-it 76-70 victory over fifth-seeded Texas (22-11) in Saturday's first semifinal. Baylor will face No. 3 seed Missouri, a 67-59 winner over Oklahoma State, in Saturday's championship game (5:30 pp.m., ESPN).
"I'm friends with a lot of Texas players and I told (Texas guard A.J. Abrams) after the game I had to get one," Baylor senior guard Curtis Jerrells said. "But winning this, getting to the championship game, is sweeter. We could have beaten them this season and it wouldn't have mattered."
Coming into the season, the Bears had lost 22 consecutive games to the Longhorns. UT added two victories to that streak during the regular season. But when it counted most, Baylor ended a decade of misery.
Two of the weapons the Bears utilized in their first two victories were non-factors. Seven-foot centers Josh Lomers and Mamadou Diene had two points and five rebounds in 29 minutes.
And the Longhorns solved the zone defense that had stifled Nebraska and Kansas. Texas shot 55.6 percent during a first half in which it was business as usual in this hoops rivarly. The Longhorns led by 12 at one point and 39-33 at the break.
But the areas where Baylor has struggled all season - rebounding and defense - made the difference in the second half. Baylor had a 35-27 rebounding edge, including 18 on the offensive glass.
"We gave up - I gave up - a couple of easy baskets on offensive rebounds," Texas forward Damion James said. "They really pounded us on the glass."
The Bears used both man-to-man and zone defense and also benefitted from Texas center Dexter Pittman (seven points, three rebounds) picking up his third foul early in the second half.
With the centers muted, the game belonged to guards and forwards. Texas had A.J. Abrams (20 points) but Baylor had senior forward Kevin Rogers (20 points) and senior guard Henry Dugat (17 points).
The Bears also made the plays that mattered while the Longhorns missed game-changing opportunities.
"This time of year, it's a very fine line between winning and losing coming down the stretch," said Texas coach Rick Barnes, who had never lost to Baylor. "We didn't make the plays we needed to make."
With a tie game and less than 10 minutes to play, Texas missed 5-of-6 free throws and freshman Varez Ward (seven points off the bench), missed a layup.
"That worked in our favor," Baylor's Tweety Carter said. "They had some chances there to take control and didn't."
Ward's two free throws gave Texas a 65-61 lead with 2:39 remaining but the Bears clawed back with an 8-0 run. LaceDarius Dunn's catch-and-shoot 3-pointer on an in-bounds pass gave the Bears the lead for good with 1:13 remaining.
Jerrells had two huge rebounds. Abrams missed a 3-pointer after Dunn's shot and Jerrells skied for the board. He was fouled and made both free throws.
Then, with Baylor up 69-67, Dunn went to the line with 26.6 remaining. He made the first but missed the second. The 6-1 Jerrells, on the lane between the 6-10 Pittman and 6-10 Connor Atchley, beat both to the offensive rebound. His two free throws gave the Bears a five-point edge.
"I think they figured with Lace at the line, he wasn't gonna miss," Jerrells said. "I watched the shot and it looked like it was gonna be short. It darted right to me."
Baylor is in the Big 12 Championship game for the first time in school history. As a member of the Southwest Conference, the Bears twice reached that league's title game but never won.
And if someone had told you that Baylor was within one victory of a four-wins-in-four-days run for an unlikely NCAA Tournament bid, well ... let Dugat and Carter explain it.
"We didn't come here just to beat Texas," Carter said. "We came into the tournament an underdog, with a chip on our shoulder," Dugat said. "We're not done yet. We have one more step and we're willing to do it."
* Baylor had reached the Big 12 Championship semifinals once before. In 2001, the Bears lost to ... Texas.
* Ninth-seeded Baylor is the lowest-seeded team to reach the championship game since No. 5 seed Missouri got there in 2003. The lowest-seeded team to play for the title was No. 10 seed Missouri in 1997.
* Texas junior center Dexter Pittman, who had seven points, had scored in double figures in the last five games. In the previous two games in the Big 12 Championship, Pittman had totaled 45 points.