Baylor needed this. Badly.
The underachiever label is perhaps the most injurious a team can have hung around its neck.
Baylor, with too many early exits from the NCAA Tournament relative to its seeding in recent years, had built that unfortunate perception during the past decade, six times failing to get to a Final Four with a seeding of No. 6 or higher.
“I hope we’re not the game that changes the public perception,” Villanova coach Jay Wright said before his No. 5 seed Wildcats played the top-seeded Bears on Saturday night in a South Region Sweet 16 game at Hinkle Fieldhouse.
Baylor not only changed the perception of its program, it shattered it in a number of ways in a gritty 62-51 win over a Villanova team that had dictated play in the first half.
The Bears (25-2) will face the winner between Arkansas and Oral Roberts in the Elite Eight, with a chance to advance to the Final Four for the first time since 2012.
In between that 2012 run and Saturday night, Baylor had been dogged by a second-round loss in the 2019 NCAAs, a third-round exit as a No. 3 seed in 2017, a first-round loss to No. 12 seed Yale as a No. 5 seed in 2016 and a first-round loss to No. 14 seed Georgia State in 2015.
That Baylor, which led the nation in 3-point shooting percentage (41.5 percent), advanced while shooting just 3-for-19 (15.8 percent) from deep is a testament not only to the mental toughness of its players, but also to the work of its coach, Scott Drew.
Drew, after the Bears were 2-for-12 from long distance in the first half and missed their first two in the second half, changed the way his team played offense.
Baylor stopped forcing 3-pointers and started attacking the Wildcats in the paint, and the Bears were stunningly successful at it. They scored 36 of their 39 points in the second half from inside the arc.
The Bears, too, raised their intensity on defense, forcing nine Villanova turnovers in the final 20 minutes and suffocating the Wildcats, who entered the game averaging 8.8 turnovers per game, lowest in the nation.
Villanova (20-7) finished with 16 turnovers, and that was the difference in the outcome. The Wildcats had committed just six turnovers in their previous two games.
Baylor closed the game on a 23-10 run over the final 10 minutes.
Villanova, which led 30-23 at the half, entered the game 15-0 this season when leading opponents at halftime. It was the fewest points Baylor had scored in 27 games this season.
The Wildcats ended the first half on a 19-5 run after Baylor had opened its largest lead of the first 20 minutes.
In the first 10 minutes of the first half, there were six lead changes and four ties. Then Baylor went on its best run of the half — a 10-0 spurt that gave the Bears an 18-11 lead with 8:27 remaining before the intermission. That would be Baylor’s largest lead of the half.
It, too, sparked Villanova to a 13-0 run of its own as the Wildcats turned the 18-11 deficit into a 24-18 lead with 5:18 remaining.