NEW YORK CITY – There were about 30 minutes left before game time. Fran McCaffrey took some time to watch warmups from behind the Iowa bench. He watched and studied gathering his thoughts as players stretched and went through layup lines. Finally, he mentioned to a visitor, “I think it’s obvious, you cannot stop (Pierre) Jackson, but we have to contain him.” McCaffrey was referring to the Baylor senior guard who makes the offense go and can produce points on his own.
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As it all played out, Jackson made an impact, but the 74-54 NIT championship at Madison Square Garden by Baylor, began with his running mate. A.J. Walton, like Jackson a senior guard, put his stamp on the game with outstanding perimeter defense that disrupted Iowa all night long.
Neither team was able to generate offense the first half. Baylor led 27-22 at the break and McCaffrey pointed out his team was fortunate to be within two possessions. Early in the second half the Hawkeyes cut the deficit to 28-27. At that juncture, Baylor went on an 8-0 run. That stretch allowed the Bears to build the lead and generate a better offensive showing. Make no mistake, defense was the story.
“They caused us to settle for a few too many jump shots,” McCaffrey said. “We are a driving team. We get to the free throw line typically, we did not tonight.”
Baylor showed excellent transition defense virtually erasing any fast break opportunities. In their half court sets they struggled to run an offense that would provide looks. Credit Walton.
“I thought A.J. (Walton) set the tone with his perimeter defense,” Baylor coach Scott Drew said. “He was able to take them (Iowa) out of their offense with the pressure he put on their guards.” While Walton exerted his pressure on the Iowa lead guards, Cory Jefferson and Isaiah Austin did the job defensively. With their length, the duo blocked or altered of number of inside opportunities for Iowa. On the night Baylor blocked seven shots (Iowa did not reject one) with Austin responsible for five.
Once the Baylor offense got in full gear early in the second half, Iowa did not have an answer. Jefferson led all scorers with 23 points earning All-Tournament honors. Jackson, who, down the stretch of the season played as well as any point guard in the land per Drew, earned Most Outstanding Player with 17 points, 10 assists. The 7-1 freshman Austin also earned All-Tournament accolades with 15 points, 9 boards to complement his five blocks. The Bears shared the ball extremely well assisting on 19 of 26 field goals.
Iowa was led by Mike Gesell with 13 points. One of McCaffrey’s better offensive players, Roy Devyn Marble was held to 6 points on 3 of 12 shooting. The Hawkeyes did grab 20 offensive boards but failed many times to convert. Their 18 of 69 (26%) shooting was another testament to Baylor’s outstanding defense.
Baylor came to New York in business-like fashion hoping to leave with the NIT title. They did and were moved by the moment. Jackson spoke softly and was moved in post game interviews. “I am extremely proud of my team tonight,” he said. “The way we played it was domination. My emotions are really high, I am just trying to relax in here.”
Drew was thrilled to see his team finally celebrate. “In ‘09 (at the NIT) and for two Big 12 championship games we watched the other team celebrate,” he said. “So it’s great for this team to win the first Big 12 championship in the NIT and the first men’s championship for the school.”
For Iowa, a team fully praised by Drew, who believes they will “be great the next few years,” it was a difficult ending. “They are down,” McCaffrey said of his team. “They know they didn’t play well but we are in this together, I tried to take it off them saying I did not do as good a job.”
In perspective, Iowa grew and had a lot to be proud of. “We won a big time road game (Virginia) then came to Madison Square Garden. We played two really good teams. We won one and lost one. We will learn from this experience.”
The title is a culmination of a rebuilding job by Drew that saw him lead the program from virtual ashes to prominence. The Baylor mentor first and foremost credits the administration commitment and resources. The Baylor coach does not forget the type kids he was attracted to Waco. “We have been blessed to bring in talented guys who care about the team,” he said. “Putting others in front of themselves. We have good kids that care about the right things.”
In the end, it resulted in the NIT title.
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