By Jerry Hill
Baylor Bear Foundation
Blake Francis kept an underdog and undersized Wagner College team within striking distance in Tuesday's NIT first-round game at the Ferrell Center with his sizzling shooting.
Manu Lecomte took them out with his.
Baylor's senior point guard scored 11 of his game-high 24 points in the last five minutes of the first half and then sparked a 17-4 run to open the fourth quarter as the Bears (19-14) dispatched the visiting Seahawks, 80-59.
Snubbed by the NCAA Tournament selection committee as one of the "first four out" when Sunday's pairings were announced, the Bears were able to put that disappointment behind them and get by an eighth-seeded Wagner team (23-10) that won the Northeast Conference regular-season championship.
"It's tough for all of us," said Lecomte, who hit 8-of-14 overall and 5-of-8 from outside the 3-point arc. "We've got winners in the locker room, we've got competitors. And we know we're an NCAA team, but it's not up to us to decide. Now, we've moved on and it's another goal, it's the NIT. That's what we're all about now."
And every time the Seahawks put a dent in that deficit and looked like they were starting to creep back in, Lecomte always had the answer. He followed up Wagner's 11-2 second-quarter run by hitting three 3-pointers and a layup for all 11 of Baylor's points in a closing stretch that gave the Bears a 40-27 lead at the break.
"I thought Manu was tremendous," said Baylor coach Scott Drew, who improved to 10-1 in his third NIT appearance over the last 10 years.
It was obvious that Lecomte wasn't affected by the NIT experimenting with the FIBA international 3-point line (22 feet, 1.75 inches). Most of his were from well beyond the arc, one coming from about 30 feet from the "B" on the BAYLOR that stretches across the half-court line.
"I think it just gives him an excuse to shoot even further back," said senior forward Terry Maston, who had 13 points, eight rebounds and three assists. "And we don't mind at all."
"Both of them are tough kids," Drew said, "so usually they've got to be hurt to not play. . . . (Clark) will get treatment tomorrow and we'll know more about that. Jake injured his hip. (Trainer David Chandler) said he couldn't go."
Outscoring the Bears 16-13 in the third quarter, Wagner got within eight at one point and trailed 53-43 going into the fourth. The Seahawks won the rebounding battle, 39-37, grabbing 20 boards on the offensive end, and forced 19 turnovers.
"That's been one of our staples all year, hitting the backboard," Wagner coach Bashir Mason said. "I just wish we converted some of those offensive rebounds into some more points. If that number is true - 20 offensive rebounds - that shows that we came to compete and play hard."
In jeopardy of being bounced in the first round, Baylor responded with a 17-4 run at the start of the fourth quarter. Maston and Jo Lual-Acuil started it with tip-ins on back-to-back possessions, then King McClure and Lecomte drained 3-pointers.
Finishing it off, Lecomte threw a long pass to Omot for a dunk, then fed Lual-Acuil for a jumper and McClure for another trey in stretching the lead out to 70-47 with 5:30 left in the game.
"We're just grateful that we're still playing and we have a chance to cut down nets somewhere else," Maston said. "I think it's just a blessing to still be playing. . . . This team is even more motivated now, and we're just ready to take on whoever's next."
Francis hit four 3-pointers and led Wagner with 23 points, but he was the Seahawks' only double-figure scorer. Omot had 11 points and Lual-Acuil and McClure each added 10 points for the Bears.
Baylor advances to the second round and will host the winner of Wednesday's 8 p.m. game between fourth-seeded Mississippi State (22-11) and fifth-seeded Nebraska (22-10).
Top seeds Notre Dame and Saint Mary's both cruised through the first round, while a second-seeded Louisville team survived a scare from seventh-seeded Northern Kentucky, 66-58, in Baylor's part of the bracket.
The NIT should release a schedule for Baylor's second-round game late Wednesday night, but the Bears have to schedule around the first and second round of the women's NCAA Championship, which will be played Friday and Sunday at the Ferrell Center.