For what has been one of the Bears' most notable advantages this year became a substantial downfall in a season-ending 78-71 defeat against top-seeded Duke University Sunday evening in the NCAA tournament South Regional finals at Reliant Stadium in Houston.
Duke capitalized on second-chance opportunities and grabbed 23 offensive rebounds that led to 23 points, many which came in critical situations. Baylor entered the game with a plus-6.6 rebound margin, good for 12th in the nation, but against a physical Duke frontline, the Bears were outrebounded 43-37.
"I mean, they just went after it, I can't really explain it," junior Ekpe Udoh said. "I don't know. We just couldn't keep them off the glass."
Nolan Smith and Jon Scheyer became the beneficiary of many of those offensive rebounds, as players like Lance Thomas (eight offensive rebounds) and Brian Zoubek (four offensive rebounds) often found the duo behind the 3-point line after retrieving boards. Smith, who was named the region's most outstanding player, finished with a game-high 29 points, while Scheyer contributed 20 points. Together, the guards made nine-of-16 3-point baskets.
"(Give) credit to them. They came out, and they executed well," senior point guard Tweety Carter said. "They got kickouts to great shooters. You know, it's tough when you're playing defense for 30 seconds and they get a kickout three. You know, they made big shots."
With Baylor up 57-54 and 5:44 remaining on the clock, Scheyer drilled a wide-open 3-point basket to tie the game. From there, Smith hit two second-chance 3-pointers, the latter which came from his own missed free throw rebounded by Thomas. The four-point possession gave Duke a 64-61 lead, and on the ensuing drive, Scheyer splashed a 3-pointer to extend the Blue Devils' lead, 67-61.
"We needed to defend well and make shots (down the stretch)," said Quincy Acy, who finished with 12 points. "Scheyer got open off offensive rebounds and kickouts, and we should've put bodies on him. We got outrebounded on the offensive glass, so that was the major key."
After Udoh made one-of-two free throws, the Blue Devils got another three-point possession, this time from Thomas's and-1 putback that gave Duke a 70-62 lead with 1:36 remaining.
A technical foul on Acy sent Scheyer to the free-throw line, and his two charity shots gave Duke its biggest lead of the game at 10 points. The Bears fought valiantly until the buzzer sounded, but the late Blue Devil spurt was too overwhelming to surmount.
"These are the hardest press conferences of the year always when you have to say goodbye to players that blessed you for their career, and helped make your program," head coach Scott Drew said in reference to his two seniors Carter and Josh Lomers.
The 47,492 fans in attendance, mostly Baylor supporters, watched the Bears take a 35-32 lead into the locker room.
Duke hit six 3-pointers in the first half, including three in a three-minute span that put the Blue Devils ahead 25-17. But then the Bears amped up their defense, and stormed to a 10-2 run capped by Carter's 3-point basket to slice the lead 27-25.
Later, down 29-26, LaceDarius Dunn grabbed the ball from Mason Plumlee and went the length of the floor for a dunk. On the next Blue Devil possession, Anthony Jones deflected a pass and the Bears converted on the opposite end when Acy's shot was counted after goaltending.
After another defensive stop, Acy abused the rim with a monstrous dunk. Then Acy made an impact on the defensive side of the ball, as his steal set up another Carter 3-pointer that gave the Bears a 35-29 lead and sent Reliant Stadium into eruption.
In the second half, Scheyer's early 3-pointer set what would become a ubiquitous tone for the half. The two teams battled back-and-forth until the 17:28 mark, when the Bears went into a six minute, 54-second slump where they missed eight consecutive field goals.
"You have to give credit to the Duke defense," said Dunn, who finished with 22 points. "They pressured us and really took us out of our comfort zone and allowed us not to run our offense, you know."
The Bears were down 51-47 after the slump, but two consecutive baskets by Carter and Udoh tied the game. Dunn gave the Bears a three-point lead when he converted two free throws, but Scheyer retaliated with a 3-pointer. The Bears had the game tied at 61-61 with 3:36 remaining, but the Blue Devils' conversions on second-chance plays caught up to Baylor, and proved to be the deciding factor in the game.
The buzzer concluded the historic careers of Carter and Lomers, who leave Baylor as the most winning class in school history, accentuated by a school-record 28 wins this season. Carter finished with 12 points and four assists, while Lomers finished with four points.
"The toughest part of every season is always just the thought that it's the last time you're going to get a chance to coach the team, and the last chance they're together," Drew said. "That's always the toughest, especially when it's been a real close team, and a team that obviously has done wonders for our program and school."