March 31, 2009

 

NEW YORK (AP) -Baylor's remarkable senior class earned one more game.

Curtis Jerrells scored 25 points and LaceDarius Dunn had 23, leading the once-downtrodden Bears into the NIT championship game, 76-62 over San Diego State on Tuesday night.

Kevin Rogers added 15 points for Baylor (24-14), which has won seven of its last eight games and matched the 1947-48 team that lost in the national championship game for the second-most wins in school history.

The Bears, making their first trip to New York since losing in the third-place game of the 1950 Final Four, will get Notre Dame or Penn State in Thursday night's championship game.

Kyle Spain scored 15 points to lead San Diego State (26-10), which long ago set a school record for wins in a season. The only No. 1 seed remaining won more games in this tournament than it had in its previous nine postseason appearances combined.

The Aztecs tried their best to slow the tempo early, but Baylor shot down that plan from beyond the arc. Then they started pressing, and the more athletic Bears got into transition and started pulling away in the second half, turning an eight-point lead with 9 minutes left into a rout - bringing the folks wearing green and gold sprinkled throughout Madison Square Garden to their feet.

My, how far the program has come.

By now the story is well-worn, how Baylor was rocked by the shooting death of one of its players by a teammate, and the numerous violations under former coach Dave Bliss. It may be many more years before Baylor shakes that ugly past, but this year's senior class has done its part.

As freshmen, they didn't have a chance to play a nonconference schedule their first fall on campus. But slowly, Scott Drew molded them into a competitive team that could hang with anybody. They peaked with an NCAA tournament appearance last season and again reached 20 wins, thanks to a stunning run through this year's Big 12 tournament with upsets of Kansas and Texas.

Rather than sulk over their loss to Missouri in the Bears' first conference tournament title game, they rallied to beat tradition-rich Georgetown in the NIT. Then Baylor's seniors went on the road to beat Virginia Tech and Auburn in the NIT, refusing to let their careers come to a close.

Together, the senior class has won a school-record 64 games.

San Diego State and its own senior-laden bunch tried to ruin things for Baylor early, going on a 13-3 first-half run and briefly taking the lead on D.J. Gay's basket with 1:12 left. But the elusive Jerrells got free once more on the perimeter and was fouled, making two of three free throws to give Baylor a 35-34 lead at the break - the first time the Aztecs trailed at halftime in the NIT.

The Bears pushed the lead to 55-42 out of halftime on the strength of 3-point shooting, with Dunn hitting three on five trips down floor.

San Diego State, which beat Saint Mary's and star guard Patty Mills in the quarterfinals, mounted its only rally of the second half with five straight points that cut the lead to 55-47. A few moments later, Billy White's basket off a turnover made it 57-51.

But the Bears were too athletic.

Tweety Carter hit a 3-pointer to kickoff an 8-0 spurt, Jerrells finished a three-point play after easily slashing to the rim, and even big Josh Lomers put down a dunk to make it 72-55 with 2 1/2 minutes left, bringing a smile to Drew's face on the sideline.