NEW YORK — The bright lights of Broadway eat up the meek and timid, so Baylor charged out for the NIT championship game with a mean, aggressive defensive mindset.
For the next 40 minutes, the Bears never let that intensity waver, and now they’re bringing home a title.
Smothering Iowa with unyielding man-to-man defense, the Bears pulled away for a 74-54 win Thursday night at Madison Square Garden to capture the NIT crown in emphatic fashion.
After losing a 69-63 decision to Penn State in the 2009 NIT title game, the championship was sweet for the Bears (23-14). It was Baylor’s first national tournament title of any kind and marked the first time a Big 12 team has won the NIT.
“We’ve seen enough teams celebrate before, so it’s great to win a championship,” Baylor coach Scott Drew said. “It’s good for us and it’s good to be the first Big 12 team to win the NIT. Any team that makes the postseason has great chemistry, and we have that.”
With freshman center Isaiah Austin collecting five blocks and nine rebounds and senior guard A.J. Walton amassing six steals, the Bears’ defense was fierce in the paint and on the perimeter. The Hawkeyes shot just 26.1 percent and hit five of 24 from 3-point range.
“Iowa does a great job pushing the ball and executing their offense well,” Drew said. “But A.J. took them out of it with his pressure on the point guard and that set the tone. He had great steals. When you’re so active that you’re cramping up, it shows you’re putting it out there with the effort.”
When Baylor’s offense began playing with the same efficiency as its defense in the second half, it was all over for the Hawkeyes (25-13).
Pierre Jackson, the final four’s most outstanding player, was Baylor’s motor once again as he finished his career with 17 points and 10 assists to bring his five-game NIT total to 98 points and 55 assists.
Cory Jefferson piled up 23 points on eight of 11 field goals and threw down some impressive slams to finish the tournament with 106 points. Austin chipped in 15 points to complement his defensive exploits.
“I’m just extremely proud of the way we played,” Jackson said. “It was domination. Isaiah had a great game and A.J. fired us up from the jump. I just tried to get my teammates involved and get to the paint and knock down shots.”
After holding Iowa to 25 percent shooting, the Bears went into halftime with a 27-22 lead. The Hawkeyes quickly cut the lead to 28-27 when Eric May drained a trey and then weaved inside for a basket.
Then the Bears kicked their offense into high gear and the Hawkeyes never caught them.
Jefferson got the attack rolling with an outside shot and Jackson drilled a trey. After Austin blocked Roy Devyn Marble’s drive, the streaking Jackson drew a foul and hit a pair of free throws. With a pair of slams by Jefferson, the Bears stretched their lead to 39-29 with 14:43 remaining.
The Hawkeyes tried to gain ground but it was futile as Jackson buried a trey from the top of the arc and Rico Gathers hit a rare outside shot. Austin raised the roof when he threw down a one-handed slam on an inbounds pass.
When Jackson nailed his third trey of the half, the Bears extended their lead to 49-34 with 10:40 remaining.
Austin kept busy defensively as he blocked two more shots. Following two more Jefferson slams, the Bears stretched their lead to 60-39 with 6:12 remaining.
“I thought Baylor’s defense was good in two areas – they got up into us on the perimeter with their quickness and their length bothered us around the rim,” Iowa coach Fran McCaffery said. “We settled for too many jump shots. We’re usually more of driving team and we didn’t do that tonight.”
Baylor’s intense defense was there from the opening tipoff as Iowa hit just three of its first 13 shots. The Hawkeyes hit seven of 28 first-half shots including two of 11 from 3-point range as the Bears opened up a 27-22 halftime lead.
With Austin leading the way, the Bears jumped out to a quick 9-2 lead in the first four minutes. Austin hit Baylor’s first two field goals before Brady Heslip buried a trey and Jefferson wedged inside for a basket.
Iowa got on a mini-roll to cut Baylor’s lead to 11-9 as Anthony Clemmons buried a trey and Aaron White hit a short jumper. But Austin came up big again as he drove inside for a basket, drew a foul and hit the free throw.
Then Walton began to assert himself defensively as he stole the ball and broke loose for a slam. Gathers followed with a slam and another inside basket to stretch Baylor’s lead to 20-14 with 6:58 remaining in the first half.
Iowa State’s last five points of the first half came on free throws but Walton continued to get into the passing lanes as the Hawkeyes could never got a consistent offensive attack flowing.
BEAR FACTS: While Pierre Jackson was named most outstanding player, he was joined on the all-NIT final four team by teammates Isaiah Austin and Cory Jefferson, Iowa’s Roy Devyn Marble and Maryland’s Alex Len.