Twice before, Baylor had played in championship games at the Sprint Center and lost to teams that had what amounted to a home-court advantage.
This time, facing a very similar scenario against a Creighton team that had to travel less than three hours from Omaha, Nebraska, the 22nd-ranked Bears were the ones walking out of the Kansas City arena with the championship trophy of the Hall of Fame Classic.
With reigning Big East Defensive Player of the Year Khyri Thomas holding senior point guard Manu Lecomte to 12.5 points below his scoring average, junior guard King McClure scored 15 of his career-high 19 points in the second half to lift Baylor (5-0) to a 65-59 win over the Bluejays (4-1) and its fourth in-season tournament title in the Scott Drew era.
"We've been in the Sprint Center before, been in championship games before, and they didn't turn out the way we wanted," Drew said of the losses to Missouri and Iowa State in the Big 12 Championship. "I thought the guys really did a great job continuing to battle and fight throughout, so that we would have a chance down the stretch. Defensively, to hold Creighton to 34 percent for the game and 29 in the second half - they're so potent on the offensive end - we're blessed that they missed some shots they normally hit."
Creighton beat 23rd-ranked UCLA, 100-89, in Monday's semifinals and came in averaging 98 points per game. But, the Bears' stifling zone defense held the Bluejays to just 34.4 percent from the field overall and 5-of-30 from outside the arc, with Thomas and Kansas State transfer Marcus Foster combining for just 3-of-19 from 3-point range.
"They made it a rock fight for 36-37 minutes. We won the rock fight, we just couldn't finish it," said Creighton coach Greg McDermot. "We have our two best players go 3-of-19 (from 3). If you would have told me that going in, I would have said we're going to get beat by 25. But, we didn't get beat by 25 because of the other things we did well."
Senior center Jo Lual-Acuil had 15 points and a career-high 15 rebounds to match his total from last year with his third consecutive double-double, earning tournament MVP honors.
"We really focus on the scouting reports, and the coaches do a great job of preparing us in knowing personnel," Lual-Acuil said. "But as a team, as a unit, that's something we talk about a lot in the huddles is we always want to try to string together as many stops as we can."
The Bears did just that, holding Creighton scoreless over a seven-minute stretch in the second half when the Bluejays missed nine straight shots from the field.
Thomas nailed a 3-pointer to push Creighton's lead to 40-28 at the 18:05 mark. But, before freshman guard Ty-Shon Alexander made a layup to end the drought, Baylor had reeled off 10 unanswered points and pulled to within 40-38 on a pair of McClure free throws.
"We were down by nine, they came out and punched us in the mouth," McClure said of the Bears' 33-24 halftime deficit. "And our leaders, Manu and Jo, called us in and said, `We're going to do this together, do this as a team. We're brothers and we're going to fight together, and we're going to win this.'''
McClure came up with a loose ball and scored on a driving layup and follow free throw to tie it up at 50-50 with 4:07 remaining.
"Manu kept coming to me, saying, `Be aggressive, go take the game over,''' McClure said. "And he just trusted me with the ball. A lot of guys would pout and be all mad and be all about themselves, but that shows how much of a team guy Manu is."
With the game tied at 52-52, Lecomte found Terry Maston open for a 3-pointer that gave the Bears their first lead since the early minutes when they jumped out to a 5-0 lead. Maston, who finished with 15 points and eight rebounds, hit another bucket and then fed Lual-Acuil in an 8-0 run that put the game away.
"One of the key things that Coach talked to us about before this game was having grit," McClure said. "We came out and we had grit throughout the whole game. They punched us in the mouth, and we responded positively and we got the victory."