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Don't dismiss Baylor in the Big 12 title race

There were 31 seconds left to play, and Baylor guard Kenny Chery needed help.

The Bears were in desperate need of a win, playing on their own floor against No. 11 Iowa State, and suddenly found themselves tied at 70 late in a game they led by 14 with less than nine minutes to play. The Cyclones' Georges Niang had just evened the score on a brilliant little wrong-foot dribble-drive. Suddenly Niang, Naz Long and Monte Morris were making everything they saw. Baylor was flailing. The collapse was on.

Nothing about the shot Chery took next looked good. It was an awkward, off-balance, well-defended two-point jumper by a player who had gone 3-of-14 in the previous 39 minutes, 29 seconds. You knew it wasn't going in before it left his hands. Worse yet, a defensive rebound would give Iowa State the ball with no shot clock and three timeouts.

Before Chery had the opportunity to make his fourth shot of the evening, he needed someone in green to grab his 15th miss. Which is exactly what happened: After Rico Gathers muscled Iowa State's entire frontcourt under the rim, Johnathan Motley annexed the post-Gathers space, snatched the front-rim rebound, and laid it back up and in. In seconds, an offensive board turned a situational nightmare (best case: overtime?) into a crucial two-point cushion.

Two possessions later, with seven seconds left in the game and Baylor trailing by one point, Chery would make that fourth field goal -- a wide-open 18-foot jumper that sealed Baylor's 74-73 victory, its most important of the season by far.

It was only fitting.

Chery's game winner aside, no single play Wednesday was more vital than the Gathers-Motley group-hug putback. No path to victory could have so precisely illuminated exactly what makes this team -- for all of its frustrating flaws -- yet another Big 12 outfit worth watching.

In other words: When you rebound your own misses this well, you can get away with a lot.

The Bears got away with plenty Wednesday night. They gave up 10 of 19 from 3 to the Cyclones, which normally would be more than enough for Iowa State's offense to chew on. In the second half, as Fred Hoiberg's team mounted its charge, the interior defense that held ISU's offense in check for most of the evening gave way. Baylor entered Wednesday night with the Big 12's third-worst per-possession defense, and all of those issues showed up again, all the way through Bryce Dejean-Jones' go-ahead 3 with 14 seconds to play. It's not often you see a shooter given a wide-open look at a corner 3 in the closing seconds of a high-level Division I college basketball game, but Baylor's squishy defensive rotations made it happen. When you can't get stops, no lead is safe.

The Bears got away with it on the final play of the game, too -- which, to be fair, was a last-second transition scramble, but still. Long, who made all five of his 3s Wednesday night and shot 7-of-8 overall, was left wide-open in the same corner as Dejean-Jones the previous possession. With 2.2 seconds to play, Niang forced a runner in traffic. Only when the buzzer expired did one of the best passers in college basketball realize he had made the wrong decision by not finding Long.

Nor did Baylor shoot the ball well in its own right. The Bears were 9-of-23 from 3 and 30-of-70 from the field overall. Baylor's offense can look haggard: For every tidy kick-out, there is at least one stagnant isolation pullup. If you're looking for smooth, fluid hoops, look elsewhere.

But Scott Drew's Bears won despite all that, for one readily apparent reason: They grabbed an offensive rebound on 45 percent of their own misses.

This is the one thing Baylor does exceptionally well: rebound misses. This trait is primarily thanks to Gathers, who hauls in nearly 22 percent of available offensive rebounds while he's on the floor, most of any player in college basketball. The burly 6-foot-8 forward might have missed his calling as a defensive lineman, but oh well; no player in America so easily exerts his will on opposing back lines when the ball is in the air. Gathers creates plenty of his own second chances, but he also absorbs a huge amount of defensive attention, which frees Motley and the rest of the Bears to get in on the act. Altogther, Baylor averages a 44 percent offensive rebounding rate, third-highest in the sport.

That skill serves to mask many of Baylor's more obvious problems, problems which made Wednesday night's win so necessary. Baylor entered Big 12 play 12-1 and ranked in the Top 25, with impressive efficiency margins and zero quality wins. It began with a road loss to Oklahoma, and then fell to Kansas at home 56-55 when it failed to get a shot off on the last possession before the buzzer. Last Saturday, it survived overtime on the road at TCU (again largely thanks to offensive rebounding), but arrived back in Waco looking shaky at 1-2 in the Big 12.

It could have gotten worse. In four days, Baylor travels to Kansas State, a team that has shaken off its late-December doldrums, gotten Marcus Foster back on track, upset Oklahoma in Norman, and suddenly re-morphed into a formidable conference foe. Missing a chance to beat a high-quality Cyclones team at home would have been a major missed opportunity in its own right. It also would have cemented a narrative about "toughness" and "finishing games" and all the rest, and it would have put the Bears at 1-3 in league play with a brutal road trip on deck. Even in early January, it would have been a disaster.

The Big 12 schedule won't let up anytime soon. That's what happens when a 10-team league is so pound-for-pound good. And it's why Baylor can't afford to let close games against good opponents at home -- the kind of games you have to bank to build a reasonable NCAA tournament resume -- get away.

On Wednesday night, Chery, Gathers, Motley and the rest held on just tightly enough. They were far from perfect and a little bit lucky, but no matter -- mentally, emotionally, and statistically, this team hasn't come close to a win this big this season.

Baylor has a lot of work to do. But when you rebound your own misses this well, another chance is always just around the corner.