And then R.J Hunter hits a three-pointer with only 2.8 seconds remaining. Ballgame.
Hardly anyone saw 57-56 loss in the Jacksonville, Fla., opener coming. The Panthers managed to score only 38 points in their Sun Belt Championship game. Georgia State’s second-best player, Ryan Harrow, was lost for the game with an injury.
The bracket seemed to be set up for Baylor to have a pretty easy ride to its fourth Sweet 16 under Scott Drew. After Georgia State, Baylor would get either Xavier or Ole Miss, both teams the Bears should be able to get through.
But that’s what happens during March Madness. When a team starts to look too far down the bracket, things go wrong quickly. Especially for seniors Kenny Chery and Royce O’Neale, there will be several moments that will stand out as turning points.
Chery, one of the best free throw shooters in Baylor history, missed a free throw that would have iced the game with only 15 second on the clock. He missed the front end of the one-and-one.
O’Neale struggled with his shot and contributed only two assists, while coughing up the ball five times. With an opportunity to draw free throws, O’Neale instead passed the ball to Rico Gathers, who missed a dunk with 25 seconds left. Taurean Prince grabbed the rebound, but turned it over.
Prince was one of the lone bright spots in an otherwise mediocre performance for Baylor. He finished with 18 points and 15 rebounds on only nine shots for the Bears and provided activity on both sides of the floor.
Outside of Prince, the rest of the team was playing not to lose the game. Everyone was tense and the bigs did not take advance of their sometimes obvious matchups. After Prince, Drew did not trust any other player off the bench. The only other two to make an appearance were Al Freeman and Austin Mills.
Now, all offseason, the question is going to be, what could have been. Maybe the Scott Drew detractors will come out of their holes. But next season, Baylor returns three of its five starters and will get big additions in the form of 2015 recruits King McClure, Jake Lindsey, Joseph Acuil and Wendell Mitchell.
All is not lost. But, like the Cotton Bowl, this one will surely sting for a while.