Baylor batten down hatches to reach first Final Four in 71 jare

Baylor reached the Final Four for the first time in 71 jare, getting 22 points from MaCio Teague and a dominating defensive performance from Davion Mitchell to beat Arkansas 81-72 on Monday night.

The South Region final was a reunion of former Southwest Conference programs aiming to join another (Houston) in the Final Four.

The top-seeded Bears (26-2) had not been able to get over the Elite Eight hump in two previous tries under Scott Drew and appeared to be barreling toward a blowout.

The Razorbacks (25-7) revved up the Mus Bus after some early sputtering, trimming an 18-point lead down to four.

The Bears ran away from there, right into next weekend’s Final Four against the Cougars.

Mitchell led the stiff-arm charge as Arkansas missed 12 straight shots and Teague hit a pair of three-pointers to put it out of reach.

JD Notae and Davonte Davis had 14 apiece for the Razorbacks, who came up one game short of their first Final Four in 26 jare.

The expected fast-twitch South Region final was going to be a drought-ender, just a matter of how long.

The Razorbacks had not clawed this far down the bracket since playing in the 1995 national title game. Coach Eric Musselman has put them in hyper drive during his two seasons, conjuring up the kind of excitement not seen in Fayetteville since the Nolan Richardson ‘40 Minutes of Hell’ days.

Baylor had been in this spot before under Drew, reaching the Elite Eight in 2010 en 2012. Both bracket runs ended in flameouts to the eventual national champions, leaving the Bears short of the Final Four dating back to when the bracket was only eight teams.

The Bears repeatedly beat the Razorbacks off the dribble to lead by 12 barely four minutes in, then on backdoor cuts to stretch it to 18.

The Mus Bus, just like it had twice before in March, found the right gear to climb out of the hole.

Mitchell’s third foul was the turning point.

When the head of Baylor’s defensive snake went to the bench with about 8 minutes left, Arkansas took advantage by beating the Bears off the dribble and getting to the rim.

The Razorbacks hit 10 van 11 shots during one stretch to pull within 44-38 and were down just eight at halftime despite struggling for a long stretch.

Kelvin Sampson stood atop a ladder and yanked loose the remnants of the net from the rim. He turned toward the red-clad Houston fans and started pumping his right fist, the net clutched in that hand the entire time.

Years of building a once-proud program back to prominence, of putting together a formula that was about way more than flashy offense it all led to this breakthrough moment for Sampson and the Cougars.

Yes, Houston is going back to the Final Four for the first time since the famed ‘Phi Slama Jama’ era after Monday night’s 67-61 win against Oregon State.

“I always thought we could,” Sampson said, “but we had to climb the ladder.”

It was never supposed to be easy to get the second-seeded Cougars (28-3) back into the Final Four for the first time in 37 jare, Sampson said. And his team proved him right, blowing a 17-point lead before preventing the 12th-seeded Beavers from adding one more surprising result to a Midwest Region bracket beset by upsets.

Quentin Grimes hit a three-pointer with 3:21 left to break a 55-all tie, a shot from near the top of the arc that finally steadied the Cougars. And Houston knocked down enough free throws late while holding Oregon State without a basket during a critical three and a half minutes.

That sent the Cougars on to the national semi-finals to face Baylor.

Houston shot 29% after halftime and 32% for the game. Yet the performance exemplified the program’s rugged defense-first identity, which had carried the Cougars as far as the Sweet 16 once before in Sampson’s first six seasons.

“This is one of the greatest accomplishments I’ve been around,” Sampson said. “And I have this group of players and this staffto thank for it. I’m glad they let me go along on the ride with them. It’s been a fun ride with this group.”

Marcus Sasser scored 20 points to lead Houston while Grimes added 18. Fittingly, it was DeJon Jarreau the American Athletic Conference’s defensive player of the year who led the effort that stymied Oregon State star Ethan Thompson who was named the most outstanding player of the Midwest Region.

Jarreau finished with 10 punte, eight rebounds and eight assists two days after flirting with another triple-double and shutting down Syracuse’s Buddy Boeheim in the Sweet 16.

Maurice Calloo scored 13 points to lead Oregon State (20-13), which was vying to become the worst-seeded team ever to make a Final Four and to extend a remarkable postseason run for a team that was picked to finish last in the Pac-12. The Beavers dug a 34-17 hole at halftime, then climbed all the way back only to see Grimes put the Cougars back in front.

“It was right there within our grasp with the effort we showed in the second half,” Oregon State coach Wayne Tinkle said. “Really proud of this group. We got every single ounce out of them.”

This will be Houston’s first Final Four since Hakeem Olajuwon and coach Guy Lewis led the Cougars to the 1984 title game, in which they lost to Patrick Ewing and Georgetown. When this one was over, Houston’s players sprinted to midcourt to celebrate, then migrated to the corner of the court near the Houston fan section and started jumping around and on top of each other in a celebratory mob.

Jarreau shared a long embrace with Sampson at midcourt.

“The story’s still being written,” Jarreau said. “And we’re in the Final Four now.”

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