By Nicole Reitz | @nicolereitz02
Sports Capital Journalism Program
INDIANAPOLIS — Appearing in the NCAA tournament for the sixth time in the last seven tournaments, No.1 seed Baylor (23-2) is moving on to the second round after defeating No. 16 Hartford 79-55 at Lucas Oil Stadium.
Baylor (23-2) will meet No. 9-seeded Wisconsin in the second round on Sunday. For the Bears, there had been concerns about the possibility that they had lost their edge due to a three-week COVID-19 hiatus in February. Baylor has been ranked near the top of the polls throughout the season and set a program record with an 18-0 start. The Bears rallied from a 17-0 point halftime deficit to defeat Iowa State, but suffered their first loss of the season four days later at Kansas and then bowed out of the Big 12 tournament with a loss to Oklahoma State.
Hartford (15-9), in its first NCAA tournament appearance, created some early problems for the Bears by staying with four points with 3:59 to go in the first half. Austin Williams led the Hawks with 19 points.
But for one night, at least, the concerns were put to an abrupt end tonight as the Bears led for 33:54 and were ahead by as many as 29 points with 2:39 to play in the game.
“Defensively, we worked back and were much improved,” said Baylor coach Scott Drew. “At the end of the day we want to advance. Our guards were sharing the ball well, guys were starting to relax and feel more comfortable as the game went on.”
Contributing to the best season in Baylor history, the triple-threat Jared Butler, Davion Mitchell and MaCio Teague combined for 47 points. Teague scored 22 on 9-of-17 shooting. Butler added 13 despite 5-of-16 shooting and had nine assists. Mitchell had 12 on 5-of-10 shooting, with six rebounds. Baylor continues to lead the country in 3-point shooting accuracy, converting 41.8% of its attempts.
“We may be pretty close to where we were before the [COVID-19] pause,” Teague said.
This is the second full season together for 75% of the eight-man Baylor rotation, with Butler and Mark Vital playing together for three years. With the ability to find each other on the court, the bonds may be hard to break. Baylor had 15 steals, and scored 22 of its points as a result of Hartford’s 24 turnovers.
“Mark is such a great defender, and while Jared didn’t have a great shooting night, we’ll take nine assists any day of the week,” Drew said.
Being in the bubble and playing in a football stadium came as a challenge for the Bears. With only one practice in Lucas Oil Stadium before squaring up against Hartford, it became a challenge for the Bears to avoid letting the overwhelming size of the arena intimidate them.
“People tell you it’s a different feeling and you get it in your mind that it’s not a shooter’s gym,” Teague said. “But I feel like any gym is a shooter’s gym.”
Drew said he could feel the nervousness of the team as the game began. But a year after the first cancellation of the NCAA tournament in its 82-year history, there was nothing but gratitude felt on the court tonight.
“That’s what goes into excitement right now,” Drew said. “The buildup, the excitement, the adrenaline. Coaches take a sigh of relief when the ball is tipped because that means a game is being played.”