The Baylor Bears stopped the USC Trojans from earning their third come-from-behind win of the NCAA tournament, overcoming a second-half surge to secure a 82-78 round-of-32 victory.
Despite watching a nine-point lead vanish, Baylor bounced back in its bright neon-green uniforms and preserved a win Sunday night at BOK Center in Tulsa, Oklahoma.
Baylor struggled from long distance, going 7-of-19 from three-point range. Manu Lecomte's struggles from deep continued (1-of-6), but he made his lone three count with a pivotal four-point play to squash USC's second-half momentum.
Less than a minute after finally finding the scoreboard, the guard turned a steal into two more points and converted a layup for two more. NCAA March Madness showcased the one-man run, which proved a pivotal turning point:
Scoreless before the wild sequence, he finished with 12 points. Sporting News' Sam Vecenie commended the timely hot streak:
Before Lecomte's late surge, King McClure offered Baylor's scarce shooting. Averaging 4.6 points during the season, he scored 14 of his 17 points during the first half.
Fans might now remember McClure from this career performance.
The Trojans have made a habit of dramatic comebacks, erasing double-digit deficits in the second half to defeat the Providence Friars in the First Four play-in game and No. 6 SMU Mustangs during one of the biggest first-round upsets. So no matter how long they trailed, onlookers never fretted.
On truTV's pregame show, via March Madness TV, Seth Davis even jokingly warned the Bears to beware building an early advantage:
They technically listened. Despite breaking off an early 14-3 run, they led by no more than nine.
Nevertheless, Davis issued another caution advisory at the break:
With eight minutes remaining in the opening half, the Trojans had as many turnovers as field goals made (six). When they entered intermission down five, Reggie Miller said they were "right where they want to be" on the broadcast.
Given their seven turnovers and 11 rebounds to the Bears' 21, they were fortunate to face their smallest halftime margin of the tournament due to McClure's teammates missing all seven of their three-point attempts.
USC quickly complied with the narrative, tying the game 73 seconds into the second half.
Both sides then traded barbs for the rest of a back-and-forth contest. Elijah Stewart, who made a trio of three-pointers, caused the defense to bite on the threat of his deep range. That cleared the way for a forceful dunk, courtesy of NCAA March Madness:
Forward Bennie Boatwright scored eight of USC's first 10 points, finishing with 16. Chimezie Metu, who contributed a combined 29 points over the team's two tournament wins, posted a team-high 28 points and the team's final nine.
ESPN Stats & Info placed the sophomore's strong performance into perspective:
He also found himself on the wrong end of a poster. Baylor forward Johnathan Motley inserted his presence in the paint with his second double-double of the tournament (19 points, 10 boards), which included a highlight dunk at Metu's expense:
Coming off a breakout performance (19 points and nine rebounds) against New Mexico State, Terry Maston provided another 19 points off Baylor's bench.
In a matchup that would have received more marquee billing earlier this year—USC opened the season 14-0 while Baylor started 20-1—both teams delivered an enthralling contest with unrelenting energy. Yet the Trojans finally tempted fate one time too many with a sluggish start.
Baylor, meanwhile, joins Kansas and West Virginia as the third Big 12 team to represent the conference in the Sweet 16. Per KSNT News' Matt Gasper, Bears head coach Scott Drew took a moment to salute his top-seeded rival before the game:
As displayed by ESPN's Jake Trotter, Drew also left an encouraging note for the Jayhawks, whom they could only again encounter in the national championship game:
After the triumph, he honored the late Turner Sports broadcaster Craig Sager before tussling sideline reporter Dana Jacobson's hair during an enthusiastic postgame interview, per the tournament's Twitter account:
Baylor will now face the winner of Sunday night's other East Region matchup between No. 2 Duke and No. 7 Southern Carolina. The Bears have the week to rest and prepare before next weekend's Sweet 16 showdown at Madison Square Garden.
They also have one less favorite to worry about after Wisconsin stunned top-seeded Villanova on Saturday, eliminating the defending champions in the second round. If Lecomte carries his hot finish into New York, the Bears could prove a tough squad to oust.
Courtesy of NCAA March Madness, the celebration carried over into the locker room:
Speaking to the media after the game, per ESPN Central Texas' Paul Catalina, Lecomte said he "couldn't hit anything" despite receiving open looks.
"I would have loved to see one go in, at least one in the first half," Lecomte said. "My teammates and Coach kept believing in me. Coach kept me in the game. I was scoreless. [Drew] kept me in the game, and I just went off."
Also courtesy of Catalina, Drew credited chemistry for optimizing the team's depth. McClure, who went scoreless in the round of 64, played the hero in Sunday's opening half. Yet after scoring a team-high 21 points off the bench against New Mexico State, Al Freeman went scoreless against USC.
"Al was a great teammate today, and yesterday he was a star. King yesterday was a great teammate, today he was a star," Drew said. "If you can't pull for each other, be supportive of one another, depth doesn't work."