INDIANAPOLIS (AP) — Nearly two decades ago, Scott Drew decided to leave his comfort zone at tiny Valparaiso for the scandal-plagued basketball program at Baylor, explaining to his father that there was nowhere for the Bears to go but up.
Now, they’re one win away from the top.
Led by Jared Butler and the rest of their brilliant backcourt, a defense that refused to give Houston an inch and a coach intent on making the most of his first trip to the Final Four, the Bears roared to a 78-59 victory Saturday night in their first appearance in the NCAA Tournament semifinals in 71 long years.
“Every day you’re grinding, and you don’t really look back. You’re pressing forward,” Drew said afterward, “but I’m so blessed to have these unbelievable players that bought into what we like to do with the program.”
Or, as Butler put it: “This is what we came to Baylor to do.”
Butler scored all 17 of his points in the first half, but just about everyone from Baylor (27-2) got into the act, with five players scoring in double figures. They doubled up Houston after 10 minutes, built a 45-20 lead by halftime and coasted the rest of the way in the first Final Four showdown between schools from the Lone Star State.
They’ll face Gonzaga, the overall No. 1 seed, or upstart UCLA on Monday night for their first national championship.
“That was one of my goals, to leave a legacy at Baylor,” Butler said, “and you have to win national championships. You have to win. You have to be a great program, be about great things, and that’s what we’re doing.”
Marcus Sasser had 20 points and Quentin Grimes scored 13 for the cold-shooting Cougars (28-4), whose dream path to their first Final Four since 1984 — they faced teams seeded 15th, 10th, 11th and 12th along the way — ended with a whimper.
“We had a great run,” Sasser said as he choked back tears. “Just fell short this year.”
Their end came against an opponent that spent most of the year ranked No. 2 behind Gonzaga, one that had been focused on reaching the Final Four since the moment last year’s tournament was canceled by the pandemic.
For Drew, the wait had been even longer.
He took over a program 18 years ago embroiled in arguably the biggest controversy in college basketball history: the graphic shooting death of player Patrick Dennehy, his teammate Devon Dotson pleading guilty to his murder, attempts by then-coach Dave Bliss to cover it all up and NCAA sanctions that lasted well into Drew’s own tenure.
Yet somehow, the son of longtime Valpo coach Homer Drew could always picture the very scene that unfolded Saturday night: His team playing selflessly, almost effortlessly, never once feeling the pressure of college basketball’s biggest stage, then celebrating their success at midcourt when the final buzzer sounded.
Well, there were a couple things Drew probably didn’t picture.
Instead of 70,000 fans reaching to the rafters, the Bears were cheered in the lower bowl by thousands of cardboard cutouts — the late Georgetown coach John Thompson, New Mexico State mascot Pistol Pete and everyone in between — due to COVID-19 measures that have forced them to live in a bubble for the last three weeks.
The roughly 8,000 fans that were allowed through the doors, socially distanced in a vast ocean of blue seats, provided a muted soundtrack to the blowout taking place inside the cavernous home of the Indianapolis Colts.