Baylor had been on the cusp of the Final Four twice before under coach Scott Drew, falling to the eventual champion both times.
These Bears have a different kind of swagger to them, a confidence with the skill to back it up.
Now their long Final Four wait is over.
Baylor is headed there for the first time in 71 years, getting 22 points from MaCio Teague and a dominating defensive performance from Davion Mitchell to beat Arkansas 81-72 on Monday night.
“Just pure joy, excitement,” Drew said. “It was an emotional game, but seeing our guys have a chance to cut down the nets, it doesn’t get much better than that.”
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) appeared to be barreling toward ending their Final Four drought with a dominating start.
The Razorbacks (25-7), who know a bit about March comebacks, revved up the Mus Bus after some early sputtering, trimming an 18-point lead down to four.
Mitchell and Teague stiff-armed them from there.
Mitchell, back after early foul trouble, led the charge as Arkansas missed 12 straight shots. Teague hit the two biggest shots of the night, a pair of three-pointers to put it out of reach.
Now it’s on to the Final Four on Saturday against the Cougars in an all-Texas side of the bracket.
“What we did is history,” Teague said. “I’m really happy for Coach Drew. He’s spent a lot of time, dedication, blood, sweat and tears into this program.”
Arkansas had rallied from double-digit deficits twice in the NCAA tournament and appeared as if it would make it another after its early struggles.
The Razorbacks didn’t have enough left against the high-octane Bears, coming up one game short of their first Final Four in 26 years.
JD Notae and Davonte Davis had 14 apiece for Arkansas.
“The effort when we got down, we could have hung our heads, but we played really hard,” Arkansas coach Eric Musselman said. “We played extremely hard, but lacked some scoring at times and defensively they hit some tough shots on us.”
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. 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 and 2012. That left 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.
“It just showed how focused and ready to play we were,” Drew said. “We got good looks and the guys made them.”
The Mus Bus, just like it had three times 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 of 11 shots during one stretch to pull within 44-38 and were down just eight at halftime despite struggling for a long stretch. They kept Baylor within reach well into the second half before running out of steam.
“I’m not sure why it happens, but it’s really hard to come back, especially from down 18,” said Arkansas guard Jalen Tate. “I didn’t even know we were down that much at one point in the game, but it just shows the resiliency of this group. We almost did it, just weren’t able to tonight.”
No 2 Houston 67, No 12 Oregon State 61
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 years, 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 staff … to 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 points, 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.”