HOUSTON -- Saint Mary's or Purdue or Duke or the Los Angeles Lakers. If the Baylor Bears show up Sunday with similar resolve and confidence and play with the splendid pizzazz that electrified the partisan crowd and defrocked the helpless Saint Mary's Gaels, how can the Final Four not be a real destination?
Surely, the top-seeded Blue Devils will have something to say about that. But what was witnessed from the Bears in the opening 20 minutes of Friday's Sweet 16 matchup on their virtual home turf of Reliant Stadium -- suffocating zone defense, cold-blooded shooting, dynamic speed and athleticism and, above all, seamless and effortless teamwork -- was nothing short of the most dazzling and dominant single half of this NCAA tournament.
Led by its brilliant backcourt of senior Tweety Carter and junior LaceDarius Dunn, Baylor went to the locker room up 29 points, 46-17. Had the Bears gone ice-cold and not scored a single point in the first 17 minutes of the second half, Saint Mary's would still have trailed. If boredom set in, the Bears disguised it well as they stamped their arrival in front of a national audience, 72-49.
"We showed that we're legit. We're not here to be called a Cinderella, you know, we're legit, we're here," Baylor forward Ekpe Udoh said. "It's our time."
With his coaching father, Homer, and his brother Bryce, a one-time tournament hero, among the throng of green-and-gold supporters, seventh-year Baylor coach Scott Drew, one week removed from guiding the Bears to their first NCAA tournament victory in 60 years, has the program on the brink of the Final Four.
"I'm not thinking about the Final Four. I'm thinking about the next opponent and focusing on that," Drew said. "I think that's what our players will do. All year long we've had great upperclassmen leadership. I know, again, you've got to focus on the game and not the other stuff."
Although the Bears carried the No. 3 seed and the remarkable story of the program's about-face into Friday's game, it was the 10th-seeded Gaels from the small, liberal arts college in the Bay Area who garnered the fanfare. The Gaels were decidedly enjoying their shining moment and none more so than happy-go-lucky Omar Samhan, their 6-foot-11 center of attention by choice.
Samhan grabbed the headlines by force on the court, scoring 61 points on 75 percent shooting against Richmond and Villanova. And he wasted little of his once-in-a-lifetime media blitz this week, engaging in Twitter conversations with media members and sending shout-outs to country music stars.
"We didn't listen to any of that talk, man," said Udoh, who finished with eight points, 11 rebounds and three assists. "We know how good we are."
Samhan and the Gaels found out quickly. Baylor's tall back line of its 2-3 zone defense flustered Samhan from the start. The anticipated matchup with Udoh never developed because Baylor's 7-foot center Josh Lomers handled him early, and Baylor ran away with the game so quickly that any individual matchups soon became trivial.
Samhan missed more shots from the paint in the first half (seven) then he had in the first two rounds combined (six). He scored three of his 15 points in the first half, making just one of eight field goals and one of four free throws. Lomers, the quiet, unheralded starter who came alive to beat Old Dominion, outplayed his more famous counterpart in the first half. Lomers' putback dunk made it 12-5, and it never got closer.
On the perimeter, Carter and Dunn harassed the Gaels' excellent 3-point shooters. A team that drained 41.1 percent of its attempts during the season and nearly 40 percent in the tournament missed 10 of 12 in the first half and suffered 23.3 percent shooting from the floor. The Bears' quick hands cut off passing lanes, and their ability to pressure up high forced the Gaels' shooters into bad angles.
Saint Mary's had quite a season and made the most of its run, but the businesslike Bears were the better team. Carter (14 points, 12 in the first half) nailed his first 3-pointer from the top of the key for a 3-0 lead. Dunn (23 points, 15 in the first half) came down next and buried a deep 3 from the wing and then somehow scooped in a layup as he sailed under the backboard.
With about 6½ minutes to play in the first half, Dunn and Carter brought the house down. Dunn stripped Saint Mary's guard Mitchell Young, streaked into the frontcourt and dished to the trailing Carter, who then lobbed an alley-oop pass that Dunn slammed through with two hands for a 29-11 lead.
Somewhere in the bowels of Reliant Stadium, Duke heard the crowd erupt. Message sent.
"No matter what anybody thinks or says about this Baylor team, we're going to come out and fight," Carter said. "We've been an underdog ever since I went to Baylor so it ain't nothing new to this program, this team. In this family that we have, with our fan support and staying together, we know that we can beat anybody."