SALT LAKE CITY — The most evenly matched basketball game of Thursday's quadruple-header at Vivint Arena lived up to the billing.
And, after surviving a riveting back-and-forth showdown with Syracuse in this 8-9 duel, Baylor lived to see another day and game in the NCAA Tournament.
That matchup, however, is a bit more disparate in terms of seeding and success.
With their 78-69 victory over the No. 8 seed, the ninth-seeded Bears earned a second-round pairing with No. 1 Gonzaga.
"It was pretty special. Honestly, being picked ninth in the Big 12, we harp on that a lot these days. We have the underdog mentality," Baylor guard Makai Mason said. "We're not backing down from anybody. That's the reason why we were able to stay calm in those big moments. We know we're sticking together and, at the end of the day, we ain't supposed to be here, and we're just happy to be moving on."
Mason led Baylor to the win with 22 points, four assists and three steals, while guard Jared Butler scored 14 and forward Mario Kegler added 13.
The Bears shot 53.8 percent against Syracuse's vaunted zone, including a 16-for-34 performance from 3-point range. The Orange were limited to 31 percent shooting in the second half and 41.2 percent for the game.
"We thought we could get looks if we executed and it was important we knocked down shots, and we made shots and that makes the offense work a lot better against the zone," Baylor coach Scott Drew said. "Sixteen for 34, you have to have good guard play to win in March, and we are blessed to have very good guard play and make us coaches look very good."
Mason and Butler each knocked down four threes, and fellow guard King McClure drained three from deep to help Baylor beat Syracuse for the first time in three meetings.
Forward Elijah Hughes led the Orange with 25 points, including six 3-pointers.
This was Syracuse's earliest exit from the tournament since 2006 (not counting the four years the Orange didn't make it to the NCAAs in that span).
"I think you are always disappointed when you lose in a tournament if you think you had a chance to win," said Syracuse coach Jim Boeheim after the program participated in its 40th NCAA Tournament. "We obviously had a chance to win the game tonight. You know, it's been an up-and-down year."
The teams traded slim leads for the first 10 minutes of the second half, with the score tied at 57-57 with 9:47 remaining in the nightcap contest.
Butler gave Baylor the lead for good with a 3-pointer after that. The Bears were up by nine with under six minutes remaining, but Syracuse made a final push to pull back within three thanks to a 6-0 run.
With the outcome still very much up for grabs and less than three minutes remaining, Mason missed a 3-pointer but got his own rebound and hit an ensuing mid-range jumper for a 72-67 lead.
Syracuse was within five points with 50 seconds left when Freddie Gillespie broke free from defenders as the Orange executed a full-court press. Butler saw him open on the other end of the court and tossed the ball from one end of the court to the other to assist the Baylor big man for the game-clinching dunk.
Baylor jumped out to an early 15-4 lead, but the Orange steadily chipped away at that advantage and eventually went ahead 27-25 on transition 3-pointer by Tyus Battle.
The Bears led by four with 5:49 remaining in the first half, but Baylor finished strong to go into the locker room on top, 38-37.
Syracuse played without starting point guard Frank Howard, who was suspended indefinitely Wednesday for breaking unspecified athletic department rules.
"Obviously we missed him," Boeheim said. "He is our point guard. I'm not going to sit here and make excuses. He isn't here. Would we have liked to have had him? Yeah."1 comment on this story
The Baylor-Gonzaga game will take place Saturday at 5:10 p.m., with the winner advancing to the Sweet 16 and the West Regionals in Anaheim, California. The Zags looked mighty impressive in their 87-49 rout of No. 16 seed Fairleigh Dickinson.
"I have watched, being a college basketball fan. They have a great, solid team," Baylor's Jared Butler said. "Every team can be beaten in March. We will prepare just like any other team, scout, look at their tendencies and their best players. So we are going into it like we are playing another team."