NEW ORLEANS -- "Act like you've been here before," came a call from an antsy Baylor Bears fan midway through a bumbling first half of basketball.
It took a while, about 37 minutes, but Baylor finally acted the part of a No. 3 seed and pulled ahead of the upset-minded No. 14 Sam Houston State Bearkats. The Bears broke open a tie game with a flurry of steals and dunks in the final three minutes for a 68-59 first-round NCAA tournament South Region victory Thursday afternoon.
Longtime Bearkats coach Bob Marlin almost outfoxed his younger Baylor counterpart by devising a triangle-and-two defense to attack Baylor's talented backcourt. It worked to perfection, flummoxing Scott Drew and his two leading scorers, guards Tweety Carter and LaceDarius Dunn, to the point of near-defeat.
"It's something that the staff and the team wasn't prepared for," said Carter, who was limited to just two points and three shot attempts in 36 minutes. "You didn't see it before and you didn't expect it. That's a great game plan."
Marlin said he drew it up at the Tulane rec center two days ago at the suggestion of his assistant coaches after they broke down Baylor film until 1 a.m. A student of man-to-man defense under former Baylor coach Gene Iba, who was in attendance, Marlin said he surprised even himself by turning to a tactic he'd never unleashed before.
"Our main focus was to get the ball out of their hands every time," Marlin said of Carter and Dunn, who combine to average about 35 points game. "We did a great job on that. We shut them down."
Yes, they did, but ultimately the Bearkats had no answer for Baylor's difference-maker and unofficial team MVP, 6-foot-10 power forward Ekpe Udoh. He took over the scoring duties, finishing with 20 points and adding 13 rebounds, five assists and two blocks.
He single-handedly kept Baylor within 31-30 at halftime as he continues to pour it on in the postseason, averaging 21 points in two Big 12 tournament games and now in his first-ever NCAA tournament game.
So despite the close call, allow the Bears to revel in this historic moment. They became the first Baylor squad since 1950 to win an NCAA tournament game. It sets up a second-round meeting Saturday against No. 11 Old Dominion, upset victors over No. 6 Notre Dame. For the Bears, a first-ever trip to the Sweet 16 in Houston is on the line.
"It's a weight off anybody's shoulders that is part of Baylor," Dunn, who scored eight of his 13 points in the final 1:59, said of ending 60 years of Baylor tournament torment. "To come in and get the victory is awesome."
And let the record show that Baylor set a school season record with its 26th victory, one more than the trailblazers back in 1945-46. The distance the 2009-10 Bears have traveled is stunning. Drew showed up a bit late to his postgame news conference, tied up in a celebratory locker room that, despite the close call, sounded as though Mardi Gras had erupted. Although the Bears were here in 2008, only three players -- Carter, Dunn and center Josh Lomers -- had ever played in an NCAA tournament game.
"Sorry I'm late," Drew said. "We haven't won a tournament game in a long time. I know there are happy players in there."
Drew and the Bears said a combination of nerves, excitement, expectations and Sam Houston's surprise defense conspired to whip up a quick 10-3 deficit. Poor shooting led to mounting frustration. Drew harped on the refs early, drawing a warning to stay in his sideline area in the first half, and then got hit with a technical foul in the second half reacting to Dunn picking up his second bad foul and fourth of the night.
"I was definitely excited, but I think all coaches are going to be who they are," Drew said. "And if you're not, then I think the players read that."
With 12:13 to play, the Bearkats used the technical to take a 45-44 lead.
Thank goodness for Udoh. A stabilizing force at both ends the likes of which the Bears haven't seen in who knows how long, Udoh used a variety of jumpers from the baseline, the top of the key and the elbow, plus creative dribble-drives and spins, to score as Baylor's guards struggled.
"Mr. Udoh was big the whole game. He led us, 20 and 13," Carter said. "They came out in a defense we never seen before, so for him to continue to stay patient and they dared him to shoot the ball and he showed them why you can't dare him to shoot the ball."
Now that they've survived, the Bears can settle down and concentrate on acting like they've been here before.
"It's good to finally get the first game out of the way," Udoh said. "Now we can just stay aggressive."