An unexpected boost to new heights

NEW ORLEANS -- Old Dominion coach Blaine Taylor could have used that box-and-five defense he joked about Friday. Had 10 of his guys been on the court then maybe the Monarchs could have clung to the bigger-than-life arms and legs of Baylor's happy-go-lucky, incredulously humble Incredible Hulk.

"I mean, he's 7-foot," Old Dominion forward Frank Hassell said. "You can't teach that."

Josh Lomers, Baylor's 280-pound, sideburn-wearing, self-described "big, goofy white guy" -- and darn proud of it -- transformed himself into the NCAA tournament's most unsuspecting second-round hero Saturday. He scored, he rebounded and once he even growled after a basket and a foul.

The senior from Boerne, Texas, did everything but turn green during the ultimate performance of his life. He tossed aside Old Dominion players as if they were tiny toy soldiers, paving the way for career-tying highs of 14 points and 8 rebounds.

He set a season high with six offensive rebounds, five coming in a critical eight-minute stretch of the second half that led to three putbacks, single-handedly staving off the Monarchs' charge while saving the day and the Bears' season.

"Without him," Baylor coach Scott Drew said. "We don't win. We know that."

This is no movie, Baylor. The Bears are headed to the Sweet 16 in Houston for the first time in school history. The No. 3 seed in the South Region, the Bears (27-7), having knocked off No. 14 seed Sam Houston State and No. 11 seed Old Dominion, face No. 10 seed Saint Mary's on Friday at Reliant Stadium.

The surprise Gaels stung No. 2 seed Villanova and are now all that stands in the way of an Elite Eight appearance by the Bears and a shot at the Final Four. On Thursday, Baylor won its first tournament game in 60 years. The last time it won two in a row was 1948, when the field was eight.

The Bears have never won three.

That their All-Academic Big 12 center put them in position to do that is apropos for a team that spends so much of its time talking about team. Playing fast and loose, Baylor busted out to a 20-6 lead and led 38-28 at halftime. But Old Dominion forced turnovers to start the second half and got hot from deep to go ahead 49-47.

Suddenly, Lomers came alive. He scored 12 of 18 Baylor points, from his three-point play to retake the lead at the 12:13 mark, to his bucket down low to extend the lead to 62-48 with 4:13 to go.

Old Dominion took the lead four different times during that stretch, but Lomers' domination on the boards never allowed the Bears' deficit to swell past two. Baylor's more traditional stars, LaceDarius Dunn and Tweety Carter, who had phenomenal first halves, finished the deal with a flurry of late baskets.

Lomers assisted, returning to his more traditional duty as screen setter. He practically cleared out the entire Old Dominion squad with a screen that freed Carter along the baseline for a layup and a 70-62 lead with 2:38 left.

Lomers, who has enjoyed his best season, averaging 6.6 points and 3.9 rebounds in 17.2 minutes, shrugged his shoulders and said, "That's what I do."

"We always looked at him as our rock down low," Carter said. "You know, he holds us together, believe it or not. ... Whatever minutes he's got, he's going to come out and play hard. That's what I love about him. Nothing bothers him. Him being as calm as he is has allowed us to be calm."

The irony is that Lomers, who played 15 of his 24 minutes in the second half, is the type of player Drew likely wouldn't recruit today. He can get better players.

Had anyone said that Lomers would outscore and outrebound NBA prospect Ekpe Udoh (8 points, 4 rebounds) in 10 fewer minutes, stem a comeback that threatened to knock out the Bears and lead the program to the promised land, well ...

Lomers was asked if he could have envisioned these events unfolding this morning.

At first he looked a bit perplexed at the question and said, "Winning or me playing so good?" As the questioner started to clarify, Lomers talked over him. "That sounded cocky, huh?" he said.

Cocky is not a word used to describe this Baylor team. Carter (12 points, 8 assists and no turnovers), Dunn (25 points) and Ekpe stir the drink, but there are plenty of straws. As wacky as this first weekend has been, is there any reason to believe the Bears won't make it to the precipice of the Final Four in front of a home crowd in Houston?

"For all our fans and friends and just everybody in Baylor nation, to have a chance to watch the Sweet 16 game close to home like that," Drew said, "is a dream come true for all of us."

Jeff Caplan covers colleges for ESPN Dallas. You can follow him on Twitter or leave a question for his weekly mailbag.