Curtis Jerrells tries not to think about where the Baylor program was when he arrived, the struggles it had endured, the perception of it around the country.
He’d much prefer to think about where he’ll leave it.
Jerrells scored 25 points and LaceDarius Dunn had 23 as a remarkable senior class carried the Bears into the NIT championship game, 76-62 over San Diego State on Tuesday night.
Fellow senior Kevin Rogers added 14 points for Baylor (24-14), which has won seven of its last eight games and matched the 1947-48 team that lost in the national championship game for the second-most wins in school history.
“I can almost say I’d rather be here, coming to New York, playing for a championship, than to make it to the NCAA tournament and maybe lose right away,” said Jerrells, whose team will play Notre Dame or Penn State in Thursday night’s title game.
When Jerrells arrived on campus as a freshman, Baylor was still reeling from the shooting death of one of its players by a teammate, and the numerous violations under former coach Dave Bliss. It may be many more years before the school shakes that ugly past, but these seniors have done their part.
The NCAA didn’t allow them to play a nonconference schedule their first fall on campus, but slowly coach Scott Drew molded them into a gutsy team that could hang with anybody. They peaked with an NCAA tournament appearance last season and again reached 20 wins, thanks to a stunning run through this year’s Big 12 tournament that included upsets of Kansas and Texas.
Rather than sulk over their loss to Missouri in the conference tournament title game, they rallied to beat tradition-rich Georgetown in the NIT. Then they went on the road to beat Virginia Tech and Auburn, those seniors refusing to let their careers come to a close.
Together, they’ve won a school-record 64 games.
“I try not to think about that, where we came from,” Jerrells said. “That was a tough time, but that’s what makes us who we are. We’ve got a great group of guys, a great group of coaches who took a chance coming here, and we’ve made the best of it.”
Kyle Spain scored 15 points to lead San Diego State (26-10), which long ago set a school record for wins in a season. The only No. 1 seed remaining won more games in this tournament than it had in its previous nine postseason appearances combined, but were done in by 19 turnovers.
“Jerrells in the first half and Dunn in the second half were both hot, and they did what they had to do,” said San Diego State coach Steve Fisher, who 20 years ago was leading Michigan to the national championship. “We just committed way too many turnovers and we’re disappointed with that, but I’m really proud of this team.”
The Aztecs and their own senior-laden bunch did their best to ruin things for Baylor early, going on a 13-3 first-half run and briefly taking the lead on D.J. Gay’s basket with 1:12 left. But the elusive Jerrells got free on the perimeter and was fouled, making two of three free throws to give Baylor a 35-34 lead at the break—the first time the Aztecs trailed at halftime in the NIT.
The Bears pushed the lead to 55-42 early in the second half on the strength of their 3-point shooting, with Dunn hitting three of them on five trips down floor.
San Diego State, which beat Saint Mary’s and star guard Patty Mills in the quarterfinals, mounted its only rally of the second half with five straight points that cut the lead to 55-47. A few moments later, Billy White’s basket off a turnover made it 57-51.
But the Bears were too athletic, too quick and playing for far too much.
Tweety Carter hit a 3-pointer to kickoff an 8-0 spurt, Jerrells finished a three-point play after slashing to the rim, and even big Josh Lomers put down a dunk to make it 72-55 with 2 1/2 minutes left, bringing the folks wearing green and gold sprinkled throughout Madison Square Garden to their feet.
And assuring a memorable senior class one more game.
“When we brought in these seniors,” Drew said, “we knew they had the capability and potential to play in games like this.”