Scott G Winterton, Deseret News
NEW YORK CITY — It's a familiar opponent in an unfamiliar venue — on a very big stage.
When No. 3 seed BYU takes on No. 2 Baylor Tuesday (5 p.m., MT, ESPN2) in the National Invitation Tournament semifinals at historic Madison Square Garden, the Cougars will be facing a foe that they've lost to twice in the last two seasons.
As well as BYU has been playing lately, the Bears have been even more impressive, scoring 93.3 points per game and shooting 55 percent from the field and 48 percent from 3-point territory.
"Our guys do know the challenge," said BYU coach Dave Rose. "We do understand that we're playing a very talented team, a very hot team, a team that's on a roll."
This time, there's even more at stake. Both teams are looking for one more victory to advance to the NIT championship game Thursday night against the winner of Maryland-Iowa.
Rose said reaching the NIT Final Four is a "prize, which is to come to Madison Square Garden, and to play in the Mecca of college basketball, or basketball itself."
And here is Baylor, again.
"It's kind of weird because we're going to play a team for the third time that's not in our conference," said BYU guard Matt Carlino. "We had the big game (in Provo), we played them at their place, and now we get them on a neutral floor. It's a big game. Being them, that makes it a little bigger."
On Dec. 17, 2011, the then-No. 6 ranked Bears defeated the Cougars at the Marriott Center, 86-83, in a game that saw Carlino score 21 points in his dazzling debut in a BYU uniform.
Last December, Baylor downed the Cougars in Waco, 79-64. That night, BYU took a 10-point first-half lead, only to watch the Bears go on a 21-2 run and take control of the contest.
"We started out strong, then Tyler (Haws) got into foul trouble and our offense kind of went stagnant," BYU guard Brock Zylstra recalled Monday. "But we're a different team. I'm sure they've evolved, too. We're better than we were then."
Point guard Pierre Jackson, who averages 19.7 points per game, leads the Bears. He set an NIT record with 16 assists against Arizona State.
"He's big and strong and fast. He can get to any part of the floor he wants to," Haws said of Jackson. "He's really the guy that everyone looks to on that team. He's their leader. We've got to maintain him and make things tough for him."
"Pierre Jackson is a guy right now that looks like he trying to prove to the world that he's a much better player than maybe people give him credit for," Rose said.
Meanwhile, Baylor's post players, 7-foot-1 center Isaiah Austin and 6-9 forward Cory Jefferson, are tough to deal with inside.
"They have an NBA frontline," said BYU forward Brandon Davies. "They're going to be making money in the near future. They're a challenge. We're doing some things to try to mix things up with them to see how they handle it. Other than that, it's going to take us wanting it more than them and playing harder."
The keys to beating Baylor?
"We've got to rebound well. They are great athletes," Haws said. "We need to play fast and free. Guys are playing loose. There's nothing to lose and we need to keep playing that way."
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