Redshirt senior point guard RJay Dennis scored 24 points and had eight assists, forward Jalen Bridges added 23 points, but it was Baylor's all-around deadly efficiency on offense, especially from the 3-point line, that fueled the 13th-ranked Bears' 95-91 victory over the Florida Gators in Friday night's NIT Season Tip-Off championship game at Barclay's Center in Brooklyn, N.Y. Baylor shot 52 percent from the floor, buried 14 of 25 from the 3-point line (56 percent) and assisted on 20 of its 30 field goals. Florida, despite shooting just 45 percent, including 8-for-26 from deep (30.8 percent), managed to stay in the game, even after twice falling back by 11 in the first half. The Gators had a 16-5 run to the end the opening period, nailing six of eight of their field-goal tries and forcing three turnovers (and allowing no points) over the final 1:25, to finish the period tied at 41. Baylor went ahead by six midway through the second half, but Florida came back to tie the game, only to watch backup forward Jonathan Tchamwa Tchatchoua and Bridges bang back-to-back 3s. That was the story of the game. Twice inside the final seven minutes, the Gators cut the Bears' lead to three, but both times were answered by 3-pointers. The Gators were led by sophomore guard Riley Kugel's career-high 25 points on 10-for-20 shooting and four of six from deep, plus nine rebounds, with forward Tyrese Samuel adding 18 points and six rebounds. Grad-transfer point guard Zyon Pullin, who made his first UF start in a unit of four guards, scored 17 and dished five assists. The Gators played without starting 7-foot-1 center Micah Handlogten, who injured his ankle in the first minute of the first-round tournament win Wednesday night against Pittsburgh. They also didn't have their best version of junior guard Walter Clayton Jr., who had 28 points Wednesday night, but battled through an illness that hit him Thursday and carried over to Friday. He made just three of 12 shots and went 1-for-8 from 3-point line.
What it Means
Baylor will float in or around the Top 20 the rest of the season, maybe even into the Top 10, and UF acquitted itself admirably. The Bears are a really good team will be players in the Big 12, but it's still a "Quadrant 1" loss and another missed opportunity on the postseason resume-building front. Remember, the Gators were 2-13 in Q-1 games last season and didn't get their first until Jan. 21.
In the Spotlight
Dennis and Bridges were dynamite for the Bears on a night their leading scorer, freshman standout Ja'Kobe Walter, got in foul trouble and was held to just 11 points, eight under his 19.2 average. For the Gators, give it up for Samuel, who in the two tournament games totaled 33 points, made 16 of his 19 field-goal attempts, grabbed 16 rebounds, had three assists, three blocks, five steals and just one turnover. And Kugel? This was his best offensive game, yes, but he's been fabulous as a defender thus far all season and got the assignment to guard Walter.
Baylor assisted on 66 percent of its made field goals, but at one point had assists on 18 of its first 19. It was a clinic in ball-sharing and example of an elite system.