A blockbuster Big 12 showdown between two of the four remaining unbeaten teams in college basketball delivered on Saturday as No. 1 Baylor withstood a valiant effort from No. 8 Iowa State for a 77-72 victory in the conference opener for both teams. The Bears (13-0, 1-0) survived the hostile environment at ISU's Hilton Coliseum with the help of balanced offensive effort that included six players scoring between nine and 16 points.
All eight players who saw action for the Bears made at least two shots from the floor as Baylor's offense rebuffed every run from the Cyclones (12-1, 0-1). Iowa State entered with the nation's No. 9 ranked field goal defense, allowing opponents to shoot just 36.9% from the floor. But Baylor hit 50% of its shots and never let the persistent Cyclones cut their deficit to within fewer than five points in the second half.
Iowa State used a 9-0 run to close within 70-65 on a Tyrese Hunter jumper with 2:17 remaining. But Adam Flagler answered back at the 1:50 mark with a jumper for the Bears, who got a stop on their next possession to maintain some separation.
Kansas transfer Tristan Enaruna scored a career-high 23 points for the Cyclones to lead all scorers as the big man helped ISU to a 44-28 advantage in paint points. But the Cyclones were undone by poor outside shooting as they hit just 1 of 14 shots from 3-point range.
Baylor and Iowa State are scheduled to rematch on March 5 in the regular season finale for both teams.
No shame in defeat
The loss put an end to Iowa State's improbable unbeaten start under first-year coach T.J. Otzelberger, who inherited a team that finished 2-22 and winless in the Big 12 last season. However, ISU's ability to go toe-to-toe with the reigning national champions validated its legitimacy as a contender in what may be the nation's best league. The Cyclones were predicted to finish last in the Big 12 by the league's coaches, and despite their gaudy top-10 ranking entering Saturday's game, it was fair to wonder how they would fare against a Baylor team that was much better than any team they had faced previously.
Iowa State passed the test and will soon put an end to a losing streak vs. Big 12 foes that now stands at 23 games. There are no easy wins in the conference, but Hilton Coliseum could be a house of horrors for opponents this season as the fan base rallies behind Otzelberger and helps this team back to respectability.
James Akinjo thriving
James Akinjo led the Bears with 16 points and continues to thrive as the team's point guard after a season at Arizona, which followed a season and a half at Georgetown. The well-traveled facilitator is averaging 18 points per game over Baylor's last five contests. After failing to reach six makes from the field in Baylor's first eight games, Akinjo has made six or more shots from the floor in each of the last five games. Best of all, his increased scoring output is not coming at the expense of his distributing role.
Akinjo could still cut back a bit on turnovers -- he had four against Iowa State -- but he may be playing the best basketball of his career. It's been an impressive transition for Akinjo, and the fact that he appears to be getting better as the season progresses should inspire fear among Baylor's Big 12 opponents.
Tyrese Hunter is legit
Part of Iowa State's excellent start is attributable to the promising play of four-star freshman guard Tyrese Hunter. Though he's been turnover-prone at times and inconsistent shooting from the outside, the Wisconsin native has also shown flashes of brilliance particularly in the areas of defense and distribution. But Hunter looked overmatched against Baylor's elite guards in the first half as he went 1 of 6 from the field with three turnovers.
Then, in the second half, he looked like a different player. Hunter scored 10 of his 14 points in the second half and did not commit a turnover. The Cyclones outscored Baylor by eight points in the second half when Hunter was on the floor as his pressure defense helped force the Bears into an uncharacteristic 13 second half turnovers. Once Hunter finds his range from outside, look out, because he showed in Saturday's second half that he's up for the challenges presented by the Big 12.