Baylor wasn’t interested in becoming another program’s one shining moment again.
An upset victim to a double digit seed in the first round each of the past two years, the Bears flew past New Mexico State 91-73 in their NCAA Tournament opener on Friday and will take on Southern California in an East Region second-round game.
“No one wants to leave the tournament early,” Baylor forward Johnathan Motley said.
But the Bears packed their bags after one game in 2015 and 2016.
Two years ago, third-seeded Baylor gave the NCAA Tournament its early-round highlight when Georgia State scored the game’s final 13 points, including a three-pointer with three seconds remaining, to score a one-point victory.
Last year, the fifth-seeded Bears were on the losing end of Yale’s first NCAA victory.
Before that game, Baylor coach Scott Drew emphasized the previous year’s loss as a motivational tool. But it didn’t work.
So he drew upon more recent history. Baylor didn’t win a game in the Big 12 Tournament last week, falling to Kansas State in the quarterfinals. That left enough of a bad taste in the team’s mouth.
“I thought the Big 12 Tournament was a great indication that it’s one game and we were home,” Drew said.
For a half on Friday, the upset alert was sounding.
The Bears fell behind 11-3, scored the next 13 points after switching to a zone defense, and went back and forth with the Aggies the rest of the half.
Despite shooting 55 percent from the floor, the Bears trailed by two at the break. Bigger Baylor was getting out rebounded, and New Mexico State seemed to be winning many of the hustle plays.
But Baylor turned up the heat in the second half, especially on the defensive end.
“We made sure we guarded the three-point line a little bit better,” Motley said. “And we made them try to shoot tough twos over our shot blockers.”
Baylor’s regulars surged after halftime as wll. The Bears got a terrific game from non-starters Al Freeman with 21 points and Terry Mason with 19. At one point in the first half, the bench accounted for 20 straight Bears points.
Key starters asserted themselves after halftime. Motley had 11 of his 15 and Jo Lual-Acuil Jr. had nine of his 16 in the second half.
New Mexico State ran out of steam late. The Aggies have been the NCAA Tournament seven times in 12 years as the Western Athletic Conference Tournament champions. But the program hasn’t won a postseason game in that span.
“It (stinks) to end this way,” first-year New Mexico State coach Paul Weir said. “I wish we had a different ending to all of this.”