By Jimmy Burch, McClatchy Newspapers –
ALBUQUERQUE, N.M. — Baylor guard Brady Heslip kept firing 3-point shots Saturday in The Pit. Bears fans kept celebrating — all the way to the Sweet 16.
The Bears secured their berth in next week’s Sweet 16 round of the NCAA Tournament by knocking off Colorado 80-63 behind a mind-numbing salvo of long-range daggers from Heslip. The sophomore made 9 of 12 from behind the arc — including six in the first half, when he was essentially a one-man offense — and finished with a career-high 27 points.
His offensive outburst kept Baylor in the game long enough for the Bears’ zone defense to cool off the hot-shooting Buffaloes during the final 12 minutes and propel the Bears (29-7) to Atlanta next weekend.
Colorado (24-12), which entered with a five-game winning streak, saw its season end when the Buffaloes’ offense went into the deep freeze down the stretch.
The Buffs made only three of their final 16 shots after hitting 57.1 percent for the first 28 minutes.
But the big story was Heslip, who was dialed in from the opening possession and helped carry Baylor on a night when the transfer from Boston College was the only Bears’ starter who hit more that half of his shots from the field.
Heslip, a native of Canada, grew up in a basketball family and idolized “Pistol” Pete Maravich to the point that he slept with a basketball on his bed as a boy because Maravich did likewise. Heslip said he still keeps a ball on his bed today, in case he’s in the mood for a little shooting practice at a moment’s notice.
“But I don’t cuddle it or anything,” Heslip said.
After Saturday’s shooting exhibition, Baylor fans and teammates were more than ready to embrace Heslip, whose name became the No. 1 trending topic on Twitter in the U.S. during the second half of the game.
“I just feel great right now,” said Heslip, whose uncle is Jay Triano, former coach of the NBA’s Toronto Raptors and a current member of the Raptors’ front office. “Nobody wanted to go home and we played like that in the second half. The guys just kept setting great screens and getting the ball to me for shots in rhythm.”
Heslip’s performance did not surprise Baylor forward Quincy Miller, who has seen similar performances from his roommate in practices and pick-up games.
“Brady is the best shooter, hands down, that I’ve every played with,” Miller said. “It’s crazy. I’ve seen him hit 10 3’s in a row in practice with people on him. He’s fearless. He doesn’t care about shooting it.”
Especially when he’s making nearly all of them, as he was Saturday against Colorado.
With the victory, Baylor gets to continue traveling along a primrose path — lined with double-digit seeds — toward a possible Elite Eight berth next weekend in Atlanta. Because of upsets in other games, the Bears will face the winner of Sunday’s matchup between Lehigh, a No. 15 seed, and Xavier, a 10th seed, in its Sweet 16 matchup at the Georgia Dome.
The Bears, the No. 3 seed in the South Regional, have knocked off a 14th seed (South Dakota State) and an 11th seed (Colorado) to reach this point. In 2010, Baylor made it to the Elite Eight with victories over three consecutive double-digit seeds before losing to Duke, the eventual national champ.
Barring upsets, Baylor will not face a higher-seeded team in this year’s NCAA Tournament until crossing paths with Kentucky, the top overall seed, in next week’s South Regional finals in Atlanta.
Unlike in Thursday’s NCAA opener, when Baylor had to battle back from early deficits of 8-0 and 19-7, Heslip made sure that did not happen against Colorado.
Heslip made a 3-pointer on the Bears’ initial possession, then added five more by halftime.
Baylor led at the half, 37-35, despite shooting only 6 of 27 from the field when someone other than Heslip launched the rock.
A strong night on the offensive backboards kept Baylor in the game until other scorers, as well as defensive help, arrived down the stretch.
But this clearly was Heslip’s night and he seized it, much to the delight of Baylor fans, who chanted “Big 12 rejects” at their Colorado counterparts once the game was put away in the last two minutes.
Asked about Heslip, Colorado guard Carlon Brown said: “We did the best we could. Once he got going, he was almost impossible to stop. He was just hot.”
Hot enough to carry Baylor back to the Sweet 16.