FORT HOOD — The first half didn’t go quite as Baylor planned Saturday night at the Abrams Physical Fitness Center, but the second made up for it.
The fourth-ranked Bears went back and forth with Jackson State and went into halftime holding a 37-32 lead, but they steamrolled the Tigers with a 45-25 second half to win 82-57.
Prior to talking about the game immediately afterward, however, Baylor head coach Scott Drew wanted to pay homage to the soldiers.
“It’s a great opportunity for us to come down and say thank you by playing a game in front of the Fort Hood families and soldiers,” Drew said. “I think everyone feels the same way, especially around the holidays when we get to go home to family and friends, and so many of them don’t get to see loved ones because they’re out protecting our freedom.”
Regarding the game, Drew felt his team was pressing a bit in the first half, but a lot of that had to do with Jackson State (3-8).
“We probably came out a little bit excited,” Drew said. “Let’s give Jackson State a lot of credit in the first half. I thought they made shots and controlled the tempo, and then I thought we did a much better job later in the half and obviously in the first 10 minutes of the second half.”
It got out of hand in a hurry after halftime.
Junior Al Freeman opened the second half with a 3-pointer from the left baseline to begin a 7-0 run for Baylor (10-0) and give it a 44-32 lead. Juniors Manu Lecomte and Jo Lual-Acuil Jr. also hit two free throws apiece during the spurt.
After a trey by Tigers sophomore Edric Dennis ended the run, the Bears went on a 12-3 outburst to go up 55-38.
Jackson State senior Yettra Specks then hit a 3 from the left wing. But Baylor replied with an 11-0 run that was kicked off by three free throws from sophomore King McClure for a 69-41 advantage, and the Bears coasted the rest of the way for the 25-point victory.
Freeman finished the night with 19 points, two rebounds and two assists for Baylor while shooting 5 of 8 from beyond the arc.
Freeman also had a solid game a year ago at the Abrams Physical Fitness Center, and he said there is something about the gym that makes him feel comfortable.
“I like the atmosphere,” Freeman said. “It reminds me of high school or AAU, to be honest — small gym, packed, a lot of people right there on the court. So it was fun to play here.”
Lual-Acuil ended the contest with 17 points, six rebounds and five blocked shots, and he said the Bears’ defensive intensity was the biggest difference in the second half.
“We concentrated more on defense, and made an effort to contest all the shots and do everything we could to make them miss,” Lual-Acuil said. “When they did miss, we were able to get the rebound and push it in transition, which is what we wanted to do.”
Baylor was also more aggressive offensively in the second half, and it allowed the Bears to get into the 1-and-1 foul bonus at around the 13-minute mark.
“To get to the bonus, you have to be the aggressor,” Drew said. “I thought we were just more aggressive in that second half. Defensively, we got stops. We were able to get on breaks that forced rotations.
“That put them at disadvantaged basketball.”
Baylor shot 49 percent from the field on 24 of 49 shooting, while Jackson State shot just 28 percent.
Tigers head coach Wayne Brent said injuries to five key players earlier in the season hampered the team and made it difficult to match up with the Bears.
“Right now, we’re just trying to scratch and claw,” Brent said. “Anytime you go against a team like Baylor — and you’re talking about a team that has a chance to win the national championship — even with our other guys (healthy), we are still short-handed because they have such good talent.”