The plan that Baylor concocted, the strategy that was supposed to upset top-seeded Gonzaga, seemed logical enough.
The underdog Bears hoped to play their particular brand of hard-nosed defense and battle for rebounds on both ends of the court.
That worked against Gonzaga’s star forward Rui Hachimura, who was neutralized all game. But it wasn’t enough against a team that has four starters averaging in double figures.
“It’s like plugging holes in a dam,” Baylor coach Scott Drew said. “You can plug three and the fourth will get you.”
On Saturday night at Vivint Smart Home Arena, the biggest unplugged hole was forward Brandon Clarke, who had 36 points, eight rebounds and five blocks to lead Gonzaga to an 83-71victory in a West Region second-round game.
“I just felt like I was really, really locked in and focused,” Clarke said. “The shots fell easy tonight.”
The victory sends the Bulldogs (32-3) to Anaheim this week for a Sweet 16 rematch with No. 4 Florida State (29-7), the team that knocked them out of the tournament at this stage last year.
“I don’t think we’d want it any other way,” forward Corey Kispert said. “We have a special itch to take care of against them.”
First, the Bulldogs needed to get past a determined No. 9 Baylor.
The Bears (20-14) have been something of a surprise this season, winning despite a lack of experience and a surfeit of injuries. Makai Mason, their star guard who joined the team as a graduate transfer from Yale, had fretted last week about Gonzaga’s array of scorers.
“It’s always tough to face a team like that,” he said.
His fears started coming true about five minutes into the game.
With Hachimura ineffective and sitting on the bench, the Bulldogs employed some energetic defense to spark a run.
Zach Norvell Jr. made a spinning layup and Kispert made two three-point baskets. There was even some luck involved, as guard Geno Crandall heaved a long alley-oop pass that dropped through the basket.
But mostly, it was Clarke who did the damage.
The 6-foot-8 junior always seemed a step ahead, shooting jumpers from short range and getting to the glass before his defender could block him out.
“This is easily the most fun I’ve had playing ball ever,” he said of transferring to Gonzaga from San Jose State.
With 16 points in the first 20 minutes, Clarke helped stake the Bulldogs to a 16-point lead at halftime. But Baylor wasn’t going away that easily.
“They’re a physical team,” Gonzaga coach Mark Few said. “They’re like a football team almost.”
Baylor’s coach personifies that mentality. Drew stalks the sideline constantly, throwing his arms in the air as he protests fouls or celebrating a good play with a windmill fist pump that all but takes him out of his suit jacket.
He challenged the Bears in the locker room and they responded, coming out for the second half with a different sort of fire, fighting for loose balls and making shots to cut the deficit to single digits.
“That’s one thing I can say about this group of guys,” said guard King McClure, who finished with 15 points and seven rebounds. “We just have fight and we have heart.”
But every time they drew close, Gonzaga found a way to open the gap again.
The Bulldogs made a few more clutch three-pointers. They made steals and grabbed rebounds on the way to a 39-27 advantage on the boards.
Even Hachimura finally got into the act, dribbling around his defender for a layup and then taking a nifty pass form guard Josh Perkins for another two points.
And, always, Clarke was ready to slash into the lane for another score.
This marks the fifth-consecutive season in which Gonzaga has reached the regional semifinals.
The Bulldogs, ranked No. 1 for much of the regular season, then slipping a bit after stumbling in the West Coast Conference tournament championship game, seem poised for a run with a lineup that extends far beyond Hachimura and can strike from all positions.
“If it wasn’t me, it was somebody else on the team making big shots,” Clarke said.
As Drew put it: “That’s what makes Gonzaga really good.”
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