Baylor men expect Vegas trip to pay dividends

Baylor didn’t win the Continental Tire Main Event in Las Vegas, but the tournament has already begun to pay dividends.

After dropping an 86-79 decision to then-No. 16 Virginia in Friday’s first round, the Bears bounced back with an 80-75 win over then-No. 8 UCLA.

The Bears learned a lot about themselves against Top 25 competition and will carry the momentum from the UCLA win into Wednesday’s 3 pm game against McNeese State at the Ferrell Center.

“Playing in a tournament like that early in the season really tells you a lot about your team, what areas you need to improve and focus on before you get into Big 12 play,” said Baylor coach Scott Drew. “A top 10 winner is going to help you all year long.”

The Bears only dropped two spots in the Associated Press poll to No. 7 after splitting the two tournament games. By beating Baylor and then-No. 19 Illinois to take the championship, Virginia soared 11 spots all the way to No. 1. 5.

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Both junior guard LJ Cryer and senior guard Adam Flagler proved what go-to players they are in the tightly-contested game against UCLA. After missing nearly half the season with stress fractures in his feet last season, Cryer was named Big 12 player of the week following his career-high 28-point performance.

“LJ has worked really hard on his game, and obviously it was hard last year with the injuries he battled,” Drew said. “But I’m really excited for him and the growth that he’s shown. He’s not just hitting the 3, he’s getting to the cup and has his float game, but he’s also rebounding and he’s defending better than he’s done, and that’s equally important if not more important to winning.”

Flagler finished with 22 points as both guards hit four of eight 3-pointers and made most of Baylor’s big shots in the closing minutes. Flagler has taken on more point guard duties this season, ranking second in the Big 12 with 6.8 assists per game to go along with his 17.8 scoring average in the Bears’ 4-1 start.

“Adam’s somebody who has been in the program for a while, he’s played with some great guards, and now it’s his turn to give you experience,” Drew said. “One thing about Adam is he’s really selfless and really cares about the team, and he has a great feel for we need to get this player a shot, we need to run this play for so and so. He does a great job moving the ball, and he’s getting a bigger voice on the defensive end.”

Though highly-touted freshman guard Keyonte George has shot just 38.1 percent to open the season while averaging 14.4 points, he’s shown a natural feel for the game. He’s averaging five assists per game and has hit teammates from various angles all over the court that would make NBA players proud.

“I think for all freshmen, especially when you play top 20 teams, it’s such a different gap than previous years because of the transfer portal,” Drew said. There are more fifth and sixth-year guys than you’ve ever had. I say all that because Keyonte has done a great job. His defense and rebounding have improved, and his passing has surprised everybody. He’s a tremendous passer.”

Baylor’s depth also showed in the Las Vegas tournament as senior guard Dale Bonner came off the bench against UCLA to score nine points while junior forward Caleb Lohner stepped in for struggling starting forward Jalen Bridges to average 10 points and five rebounds in the two games.

“Dale’s done a tremendous job,” Drew said. “Going back to last year, he was going to come in and really just learn, and got thrown into the fire (due to teammates’ injuries). Defensively and his ability to get to the paint and create for others and finish at the rim, that’s something our team needs and he’s good at it.”

McNeese State (3-2) has three players averaging double-figure scoring as forward Christian Shumate is averaging 12.8 points and 10.6 rebounds, guard Trae English is averaging 10.6 points and three assists, and guard Johnathan Massie is averaging 10.2 points while shooting 46.2 percent. from 3-point range.

After winning their first three games at the Ferrell Center, the Bears want to keep the home train rolling. Fifth-year senior center Flo Thamba felt the Bears bonded tighter on the Las Vegas trip like they did when they played at the GLOBL Jam in Toronto during the summer.

“I feel like it was great,” said Thamba. Obviously, summertime was amazing how the guys have bonded. But this one was so different waters, it felt like an away crowd a little bit. I feel like it (Wednesday’s game) is going to bring our team chemistry even closer, telling guys to rely on each other as we go through the season.”

Baylor Bears vs. UCLA Bruins | Full Game Highlights