basketball

ANALYSIS: Baylor going to the NYC because its point guard delivered

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Baylor PG Manu Lecomte scored all 12 of his points in the final 4:42 of Baylor's 82-78 win over USC.
Newsday

This is how a nightmare suddenly becomes the greatest dream ever.

For 35 minutes, Baylor junior guard Manu Lecomte could not have picked a worse time to have a terrible game. He was scoreless. He wasn't moving the offense. He was taken out of the lineup in the Bears' second-round game against USC.

Simply, he stunk.

And then one 4-point play later at the 4:42 mark, his game changed. Baylor's fortunes changed. And the Bears are going on to play in the Sweet 16 at Madison Square Garden following their 82-78 victory over the Trojans. Baylor is in the Sweet 16 for the fourth time since 2010. The other appearances are 2010, 2012 and 2014

Baylor's season continues in the East Regional semifinals Friday against South Carolina. Baylor and South Carolina met in a home-and-home series in 2013 and 2014. The Bears swept the meetings in tight contests; 66-64, in 2013 in Waco and 69-65 in 2014 in Columbia, S.C.

The other regional pits Wisconsin against Florida. Yep, the East is wide open. The tournament's No. 1 overall seed and defending national champion Villanova is gone. No. 2 Duke is also gone.

When it comes to winning in the NCAA tournament, a team can have the best front court of anyone. But it always comes down to winning with guard play. Lecomte scored all 12 of his points in the final 4:42 including eight in 45 seconds (4:42-3:57).

Better late than never.

The point guard is supposed to be the one who runs the train and gets people in the right position to make plays. Without him, your offense looks pedestrian and sometimes dysfunctional.

Consider that Lecomte's last two came on some help from USC center's Chimezie Metu's goal tend with 28 seconds to go. For all practical purposes, that sealed this game.

We can relive Jonathan Motley's 19 and 10 and Terry Maston coming up with another 19-point outing. But Baylor nudged to the finish line because the man with the ball closed.

I've been saying all season that Lecomte is arguably the best point guard Scott Drew has ever coached. I think about the clutch game-winning shot against Iowa State as the Bears rallied late. I think about the plays he made down the stretch to beat Oklahoma State in front the largest crowd ever at the Ferrell Center.

When he's right, Baylor's right. When he's off, Baylor is off. That's why you build your team around him.

Baylor took several hay makers from the Trojans. That's a really good team led by Bennie Boatright and Metu among others. That program enjoyed a single-season school record for wins (26).

Really, it appears the Trojans were on the verge of throttling down and taking control of this game. They had been leading from about the 12 minute mark of the second half until Lecomte's play.

But because Motley had run into foul difficulty --he later fouled out with 1:39 to play -- Drew had to go small with his lineup and trust that Ish Wainright could handle Boatright and that the guards could provide some offense. It worked out just fine.

These were two evenly matched teams. It was just a really good basketball game. Baylor did the right thing against the USC 2-3 zone by floating someone through the middle (something SMU failed to recognize and never did) and get jumpers off the foul line, King McClure returned from his MIA Friday with 17 points (14 in the first half). The bench contributed 25 points.

This is what makes the NCAA tournament a total crap shoot. The region that you think could be the toughest suddenly becomes wide open. Why? Because it's a different brand of basketball. The other team doesn't want to put away the uniform either. Sometimes, they could care less what it says across the chest of the other team.

South Carolina won't. Wisconsin won't. Florida won't. Baylor won't. Baylor is two steps away from advancing to the Final Four in Glendale, AZ. I said after the Battle 4 Atlantis during Thanksgiving weekend that the Bears were good enough to get to the Final Four.

But as we've learned throughout the years in the NCAA tournament -- be mindful of what Baylor endured in 2015 and 2016 -- that what you assume should happen doesn't necessarily mean that will.

Until then, let the Madness continue at Madison Square Garden.

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