PARADISE ISLAND, the Bahamas– Louisville played near perfect basketball for the first half of championship game against Baylor in their Battle 4 Atlantis tournament here at the Atlantis Resort.
Then the sky caved in.
Baylor, which trailed, 32-12, late in the first half and was down 44-24 with 16:36 to play, staged an epic comeback to stun the 10th-ranked Cardinals, 66-63, outscoring them 42-24 in final 20 minutes. If you hadn’t seen it, you would have never believed it. The 20th-ranked Bears, playing with fresh legs and superior depth, shot 17 for 26 against a mentally and physical fatigued Louisville team during the second half, when they forced nine turnovers. The Cardinals, who are down two scholarships because of NCAA sanctions, looked exhausted, particularly at the guard spots, from playing a frenetic up tempo style with a limited rotation for the third time in three nights.
“We have been a second half team all tournament, but that one I guess took it to extremes,” Baylor coach Scott Drew said. “I thought first half Louisville pounded us on the glass and took me until the end of the first half to get any rhythm. We kept missing shots. But our guys stuck with it. I don’t think I’ve ever been involved in a championship game like that, especially against a quality team like Louisville, which was sixth in the nation in field goal percentage defense. ‘We couldn’t score for 20 minutes, then all of a sudden, we were able to score 42 in the second.”
Baylor’s 6-10 forward Johnathan Motley, who scored 15 points and grabbed 6 rebounds, was selected MVP of the tournament, but the Big 12 Bears won this game because three of their backups exploded offensively in the second half. Guard King McClure scored all 15 of his points then. Forward T.J. Maston scored 10 of his 12 and guard Jake Lindsey had consecutive break away layups off steals to turn a 56-55 deficit into a 59-56 lead with 3:26 to set the stage for the 6-10 Motley to take over at the end of a huge victory.
It was a wild day of basketball at the Imperial Ballroom. Earlier in the day, Michigan almost let an 18 point lead slip away against Wichita before holding off the Shockers, 77-72, in the third place game.
“It takes a team to win, especially on the last day when everyone has tired legs,” Drew said. “T.J., King and Jake are all good players and we trust them. As coaches, nothing makes you happier when you put them in and you are rewarded. I thought fresh legs from King got us going. Then we were able to find T.J. in position where he was really productive. Then, we got Mot’ playing one on one, took advantage of the double team. It’s such a game of momentum. When you have it, it’s great. When you don’t it’s not too much fun.”
‘This was Baylor’s third win over a ranked team in the last 10 days. The Bears have beaten fourth-ranked Oregon, 24th ranked Michigan State and now the Cardinals, an elite ACC program. They should be closing in on a Top 10 spot in the polls.
The Bears could have waved a white flag at halftime. But they didn’t.
“A lot of teams when they’re down like that, they break apart,” McClure said. “We came together. We were in the locker room at halftime and we said, ‘We’ve been here before. Last year, against Oklahoma, we were down 27, came back to take the lead. We ended up losing but because we had been in this kind of situation before and the great leadership we have– guys like Mot’ and (guard) Ish’ (Wainright) told us ‘We got this one.”’
Louisville Hall of Fame coach Rick Pitino was still trying to make sense of the seismic implosion 30 minutes after the final buzzer.
“We could not have better basketball than we did in the first half,” he said. “That was a spectacular display. But it took a lot out of us. In the second half, seven straight times we were in the wrong defense running down, giving up easy baskets. That is a sign of fatigue after three days. We weren’t sharp on our offensive screening, moving, cutting and we were literally walking around in the second half. The only way we could win is if we tried to pressure them because half court, they would beat us. You can’t play this style and walk around like that. This loss is on me, not the players. I have to learn to get some confidence in our bench. I’ve got to get some minutes for (backup guards) David Levitch and Ryan McMahon.”
Pitino has to get some rest for his starting backcourt of Donovan Mitchell and Quentin Snider. Mitchell, who had 17 points, 8 rebounds and 4 assists, played 36 minutes. Snider, who scored 14, played 34. But the two guards, who are good shooters, made just 12 for 28 field goal attempts and committed seven turnovers.
“It’s hard to admit that you are tired,” but at the end of the day, we didn’t make the plays at the right time,” Mitchell said. “Being lazy– we can’t have that.”
It was a hard lesson for a good team to learn.