SALT LAKE CITY – They cracked Syracuse’s patented zone. Now the Baylor Bears get a shot at Gonzaga’s potent rim protectors.
Led by Makai Mason’s 22 points, ninth-seeded Baylor pulled away late in the second half of a game that was tight throughout to beat eight seed Syracuse 78-69 Thursday night in the NCAA Tournament at Vivint Smart Home Arena, earning the Bears a round-of-32 matchup with top seed GU.
Baylor (20-13) and Gonzaga (31-3) will play for a Sweet 16 berth Saturday at 4:10 p.m. (TBS) in Salt Lake City. The schools have never met in the NCAA Tournament, but the Bulldogs have won all four regular-season meetings – most recently in 2013, when GU won 94-87 in Spokane.
Syracuse deployed its trademark zone defense but never bothered Baylor with it, instead surrendering a flurry of 3-point shots to the Bears, who set a program NCAA Tournament record with 16 3s on 34 attempts. That was also a season high for Baylor.
Mason and Jared Butler each made four, while Mario Kegler and King McClure had three apiece.
“The fact we play zone helped us in the game, being able to go against that and practice every day with our guys flying around, we are used to those kind of shots, just kick-out 3s,” Mason said. “That helped us tonight.”
Baylor led by as many as 11 points in the first half, but Syracuse chipped away, whittling the lead down to 38-37 at halftime. The lead flipped 12 times throughout the course of the game, but Baylor’s 3-point shooting kicked in at the right time and Butler canned two 3-pointers inside the final 10 minutes, then Kegler made another establishing a nine-point lead with 5:39 left.
“We shot the thing really well,” McClure said. “That was our game plan. We tried to get the ball in, share the ball and make plays for one another.”
Syracuse shot 41 percent from the field without star point guard Frank Howard, who was suspended for a violation of team rules, and got a lift from Elijah Hughes, who scored 25 points on 6-of-11 from the 3-point line.
All-Atlantic Coast Conference guard Tyus Battle scored 16 points and energized the Orange with a pair of breakaway dunks in the second half – the second of which tied the game at 55 with 10:54 to go.
“They made a couple at the end and we missed a couple at the end,” Syracuse coach Jim Boeheim said. “We couldn’t stop their offense, and they really couldn’t stop ours. And it ended up when they got a couple open 3s at the end and we got a couple, we missed ours and they made them.
“And they deserved the win.”
The Bears exploited Syracuse’s hallmark zone by dishing out 20 assists – second all time for Baylor in an NCAA Tournament game – and got 16 points from their bench, compared to just five for the Orange.
“They are a smart team,” Boeheim said. “They are good against zones. They play zone. They got the ball in the middle and used the guys as passers, and we didn’t cover it as well as we needed to.”
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