PARADISE ISLAND, Bahamas – For the first time this season, No. 6 Baylor found out what it’s like to play in a close game against VCU in the Battle 4 Atlantis semifinals.
The Bears passed the test.
Kendall Brown unleashed a dunk and James Akinjo and Adam Flager each hit a pair of free throws in the final 21 seconds as Baylor held off VCU, 69-61, on Thursday night.
The Bears (6-0) will face traditional power Michigan State (5-1) in the championship game Friday at 10 a.m. The Spartans advanced to the finals with a 64-60 win over No. 23 Connecticut on Thursday.
Baylor will try to win its second Battle 4 Atlantis championship after capturing its first in 2016 that included a first-round win over VCU, a semifinals win over Michigan State, and a championship game win over Louisville.
“It will be a grown man’s game tomorrow,” said Baylor coach Scott Drew. “Coach (Tom) Izzo, everyone knows their teams are extremely tough. And three games in three days, that’s when your toughness comes out. So obviously defensively, offensively, they’re going to be sound.”
The Bears had won their first five games easily by double figures, including a 75-63 win over Arizona State in Wednesday’s opening round. But VCU (3-3) came out playing aggressive defense and forced 13 first-half turnovers. Baylor finished the game shooting 40.4 percent, but committed just five second-half turnovers.
“It’s really tough to play a team that has that kind of style in the second or third game because when anything’s different you normally need a couple of days to prepare for it,” Drew said. “When you don’t have those couple of days, it makes it tough. That would be the first thing. The second thing is when you’re playing multiple games in multiple days it’s tough on your legs. Playing against a team that traps and presses and does what they do, it’s just a constant pressure.”
The Bears went into halftime with a 29-27 lead, and the main reason was Jonathan Tchamwa Tchatchoua’s play off the bench as he hit five of six field goals and scored 11 points, including a 3-pointer and another outside shot. The big man finished the game with 13 points and eight boards.
“Jon’s worked really hard on his outside shot,” Drew said. “As a coach, you love when guys work hard on something and they’re able to show it. Both of them were late shot clock, catch and shoot, those are the ones we want him taking.”
Matthew Mayer hit three of five 3-pointers and led the Bears with 15 points while grabbing six rebounds. Kendall Brown scored all of his 14 points in the second half and added five boards as the Bears won the rebounding battle, 42-33.
Brown quickly extended Baylor’s lead to 38-27 to start the second half by scoring six points in a 9-0 run. But VCU charged back as Vince Williams and Marcus Tsohonas buried 3-pointers to cut Baylor’s lead to 45-42.
With Mayer scoring on a layup and nailing a 3-pointer, the Bears stretched their lead to 51-42. But the Rams made another charge as Jayden Nunn hit a 3-pointer to trim Baylor’s lead to 55-51 with 6:25 remaining.
The Bears managed to maintain their lead as Brown got loose for a slam with 21 seconds to play. The Rams cut Baylor’s lead to 65-61 when KeShawn Curry stole LJ Cryer’s inbounds pass for a layup with 15 seconds remaining.
But the Bears finished off the win with a pair of free throws by both Akinjo and Flagler.
“It was huge for us,” Mayer said. “It was our first real test in terms of a close game at the end. I think we’re a really good team and we’ve got a lot of toughness, and I’m just glad we could get that out of the way so we can find that out about ourselves.”