INDIANAPOLIS — Davion Mitchell had the clock measured just right and Houston’s Marcus Sasser unwittingly at his mercy.
Surely Sasser had seen on film the variety of ways Mitchell can create space on the perimeter, be it a jab step, a fancy dribble or simply initiating contact with his defender and pinballing away, allowing him just enough time to get a shot up.
Still, studying it and feeling it are two different things. And as the final seconds ticked away in the first half of the Final Four’s opening game Saturday night, it had to be a helpless feeling as Mitchell’s through-the-legs crossover backed Sasser up enough for Mitchell to leap sideways and release a 3-pointer from his favorite spot just left of the key.
That it swished through the net to give Baylor a 25-point halftime lead on the way to a 78-59 win over Houston was no surprise. It was just Baylor doing Baylor things, which for much of this season has been launching and hitting those kinds of 3-pointers with a rate of accuracy better than any team in the country.
Of the many traits that have gotten the Bears to this point, it’s that one — their ability to make 3-pointers in all kinds of ways — that could very well make them national champions on Monday night.
“They made a lot of shots,” Sasser said. “A lot of tough shots. They made shots, man.”
Most of what we saw Saturday was rooted in Baylor simply being better than Houston, a very good team that had a glide path to the Final Four, playing a No. 15 seed, a No. 10 seed, a No. 11 seed and a No. 12 seed. That doesn’t diminish what the Cougars accomplished to get here, and all the metrics and computer numbers had Houston pegged as a top-10 team for much of the season. But Baylor was simply a different level of competition, and if they had played this game a dozen times, it doesn’t seem likely Houston would win even once.
Still, the way this semifinal played out, with Baylor making 11-of-24 threes, showed the difference between what Baylor looks like when it’s not hitting shots (still one of the best teams in the country) and when it is (a basketball supernova).
For much of this tournament, we’ve seen the first version. Coming into the Final Four, Baylor had made 30 of 84 from long range, which is a solid 35.7 percent but down from the 41.8 percent the Bears made in the regular season. In fact, Baylor’s Sweet 16 game against Villanova was closer than it should have been for the first 35 minutes because it just couldn’t get threes to go down (3-of-19 overall).
Historically, there’s always some concern in the tournament with teams who shoot the three as well as Baylor that one bad night is going to get them sent home. But the Bears are different. They have offensive versatility, their guards can all score off the drive, and they aren’t looking to chuck as many shots as they can.
“I don’t think I’ve seen a team with five guards at that level,” Houston coach Kelvin Sampson said. “They are unique in that they can shoot threes, make free throws and get to the rim and finish.”
But now there’s just one game left in Baylor’s season, and the difference in winning or losing it could very well be whether it can carry over the good shooting vibes from Saturday for one more game.
“Feed the hot hand and share the ball,” Baylor coach Scott Drew said. “That’s what we’ve done all year long.”
The hottest hand Saturday was the one Baylor has been waiting on since the postseason began. Jared Butler, a 40-percent 3-point shooter on the season, had been just 6 of 24 in the NCAA Tournament. Going back even further, he made just 3 of 12 in the Big 12 tournament. Butler stayed positive, sure that it was going to turn around at some point. It happened against Houston when he got into a rhythm early and often, making 4 of 5 from distance to help break the game open in the first half.
“I’m a shooter,” Butler said. “Sometimes the ball goes in, sometimes it doesn’t go in. It’s just about me staying confident through it all. Tonight the ball went in, and it’s a big game and thankfully it went in when we needed it the most.”
Baylor also got threes from forward Matthew Mayer off the bench (2 of 5), Mitchell (3 of 6), Adam Flagler (1 of 2) and MaCio Teague (1 of 5).
If the Bears can replicate that kind of accuracy, they’ll have a great chance at cutting down the nets.
Follow USA TODAY Sports columnist Dan Wolken on Twitter @DanWolken