Bears fall short in South Regional final to Duke
Maybe Baylor can finally escape its past, even if the Bears couldn't cap their breakthrough season with a perfect ending.
Baylor's long road to recovery stalled one win shy of the Final Four on Sunday, when the Bears lost 78-71 to Duke in the South Regional final. It was a disappointing, emotional end to a great NCAA tournament run for a program shattered by murder and scandal seven years ago.
``Can't put into words what they've done for the school, what they've done for the team, what they've done for the program,'' said coach Scott Drew, who took over the ravaged program in August 2003. ``Coaches coach a lifetime and might not have a team like that.''
Baylor (28-8) led 61-60 after Ekpe Udoh's floater in the lane with 3:53 left. Duke's Lance Thomas grabbed an offensive rebound and passed to Nolan Smith for a 3-pointer after that, and the Blue Devils never trailed again.
The Bears won't be at next week's Final Four, but what a journey they took to get so close.
The program was in shambles after the summer of 2003, when a player was killed by a teammate and former coach Dave Bliss was caught in a web of lies and illegal payments.
Drew took on the challenge of rebuilding Baylor and used Duke as the model for what he wanted the program to be, from the victories to the clean-cut image.
The Bears are obviously getting there, but they're still not the Blue Devils, who'll make their 11th Final Four appearance under Mike Krzyzewski.
LaceDarius Dunn scored 22 points, Udoh added 18 points, 10 rebounds and five blocks and Carter added 12 points and four assists for the Bears, picked to finish near the bottom of the Big 12 last fall by the league's coaches.
Carter couldn't hold back tears on the podium after the game, breaking down as Udoh was answering a reporter's question.
``It all started in the summer,'' Udoh said. ``Nobody thought we had something special coming together. You know, we all just came together and we loved each other.''
Carter and center Josh Lomers are the only seniors in this group, so the Bears certainly won't be underestimated next season.
``It's not over for this program,'' Carter said. ``You hate for it to end, as far as you not playing this year. We worked to make it to the Final Four and win the national championship, but it didn't go that way.''
Baylor beat Sam Houston State and Old Dominion to earn a berth in the round of 16 in Houston, less than a 4-hour drive from Waco. Riding momentum from a roaring crowd of fans clad in green and gold, the Bears overwhelmed St. Mary's 72-49 in Friday's regional semifinal.
Their followers were out in full force again Sunday, drowning out the lone section of Duke fans, but the Blue Devils finally pulled away in the closing minutes. The Bears huddled on the court moments after the final buzzer, then waved to misty-eyed fans as they walked off.
``The toughest part of every season is always just the thought that it's the last time you're going to get a chance to coach the team, the last chance they're together,'' Drew said. ``That's always the toughest, especially when it's been a real close team, and a team that obviously has done wonders for our program and the school.''
Considering where this program was in 2003, they should all hold their heads high.
Carlton Dotson pleaded guilty to fatally shooting teammate Patrick Dennehy and is serving a 35-year prison term for murder.
The death opened up a scandal that led to the resignation of Bliss, who was caught on tape trying to portray Dennehy as a drug dealer. The school also determined Bliss improperly paid up to $40,000 in tuition for Dennehy and another player and solicited money from boosters.
The school imposed harsh penalties, but Drew plunged into the job anyway. Louisiana prep stars Dunn and Carter came to help, turning away interest from other programs to blossom into one the top backcourts in the nation.
The 6-foot-10 Udoh completed the puzzle for this season, after transferring from Michigan. He earned top newcomer and best defensive player honors in the Big 12 after breaking the league's single-season record for blocked shots.
Baylor couldn't beat Duke and finish the dream run in Indianapolis, but how far the Bears have come.
``This just brings your program to another level,'' Drew said. ``Whenever you can advance to an Elite Eight, people look at you in a different light. Hopefully, it will help with recruiting and continue to grow with the fan base and everything else.''