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Baylor reaches new heights just years removed from ugly scandal

HOUSTON -- After Scott Drew led Baylor to its first NCAA Tournament win in 50 years last week, someone asked the Bears' coach which tourney win meant more -- his first as a head coach or the one in 1998 when he was a Valparaiso assistant under his father, Homer, and his kid brother, Bryce, made a miracle shot to beat Ole Miss in the first round.

"To me, definitely Bryce's shot," Drew said March 18. "But as we keep winning, if we're fortunate enough to have that happen, then you can ask that question again."

It may be time to ask again.

Friday, Drew's third-seeded Bears hammered 10th-seeded Saint Mary's, 72-49, to send Baylor to the Elite Eight. The Gaels and loquacious center Omar Samhan were the darlings of the tournament, but maybe the Bears' lofty seed obscured the true Cinderella story. Before you scoff and dismiss applying that term to a team of freak athletes that reached the round of eight by defeating three double-digit seeds, consider the following facts:

• Seven years ago this June, one Baylor player, Carlton Dotson, shot and killed another Baylor player, Patrick Dennehy. Dennehy's death raised questions about how Dennehy, a non-scholarship player who sat out after transferring from New Mexico, paid for tuition and living expenses. It was found that Baylor coach Dave Bliss had been paying for Dennehy's tuition. As the investigation closed in on Bliss' violations of NCAA rules, Bliss was taped suggesting that if anyone asked, the players should say their recently murdered teammate made the money selling drugs.

• After a long NCAA investigation revealed that Bliss had paid up to $40,000 in tuition for two players, the Baylor officials went before the Committee on Infractions. One of the people who addressed the committee was Drew, who had been hired in the wake of the scandal. Drew told the committee he would steer the program in the proper direction, and officials pleaded to avoid the Death Penalty. They did -- barely. "As a repeat violator, they were subject to the death penalty," committee chair Gene Marsh said in 2005. "Their penalties and their approach saved their basketball season."

• The NCAA placed the Bears on probation until three months from now, and Baylor was banned from playing non-conference games in 2005-06. That Bears team began its season Jan. 11, 2006 and limped to a 4-13 record, losing those unlucky 13 by an average of 16.5 points.

In spite of all the pain and uncertainty swirling around the program, Drew convinced players such as New Orleans point guard Tweety Carter and Boerne, Texas, center Josh Lomers to sign with the Bears. Those two, who enrolled months after that brutal season ended, stood on the floor at Reliant Stadium on Friday night, their hands raised in the traditional Baylor Sic'em salute. Thousands of Baylor fans raised their hands in response.

They high-fived fans in the tunnel and returned to a locker room festooned with flyers that showed a picture of the Bears huddled on the court. Wrapped around the picture were the words "We're Special."

"No matter what we did, no matter how bad we lost, we came out and worked hard," said Carter, who scored more than 7,000 points in high school and now spends much of his time distributing to scoring machine LaceDarius Dunn. "In the weight room, in practice, we worked hard. We didn't give up. We didn't give up on each other. We stayed with each other, and we knew that we needed to do something special."

Being one win from the Final Four is pretty special. But the Bears can't dwell on their place in history. They have a game to play Sunday. Though they'll face a top-seeded Duke team more athletic than the outmanned Gaels, they'll punch their ticket to Indianapolis if they play the way they did Friday.

The Bears were selfless on offense and relentless on defense. Their zone, with the 7-foot Lomers, 6-11 Ekpe Udoh and 6-10 Anthony Jones, suffocated Samhan inside. Meanwhile, Dunn and Carter harassed St. Mary's shooters into bricks and airballs.

When Dunn (who had a game-high 23 points) stole the ball, passed to Carter and then dunked an alley-oop from Carter with 6:40 remaining in the first half to put the Bears up 29-11, everyone in the building knew the game was over.

But the Bears had shown only a brief glimpse of their athleticism. Dunn, after slicing through the lane for several early buckets, dribbled on the wing behind the three-point line. He stabbed his right foot toward the basket, and the entire Saint Mary's defense sagged. Just as quickly, Dunn returned his foot to its original position and swished a three.

Early in the second half, Carter threw an underhand lob toward the basket. Sixth man/dunking machine Quincy Acy coasted down the baseline and floated forever before catching the ball and dropping it into the basket.

Later, Acy caught a pass on the run just outside the paint. As soon as he caught it, he leaped and raised the ball over his head with both hands. Samhan knew he had no chance. As he turned toward the offensive end, Acy swung on the rim like an elementary-schooler on the monkey bars.

Meanwhile, Samhan struggled. He finished the first half with three points on 1-of-8 shooting. The Gaels' shooters, who were supposed to bail out their big man, made just two of 12 first-half three-point attempts, and the Gaels trailed by 29. "It wasn't that our guards were not knocking down shots," Samhan said. "It was just that I didn't play well."

As well as the Bears played, they remember that they barely beat Sam Houston State to escape the first round. "This game doesn't mean anything now," Lomers said.

Lomers is wrong about that. Though Baylor players and coaches have too much work to do to worry about the significance of the moment, they'll look back someday and realize that on three nights in March, the program that came back from the brink of destruction was special. If all goes well, the Bears will be special three more times.

And then maybe -- just maybe -- this run will surpass Bryce's shot in Scott Drew's personal pantheon. Friday, the coach's proud father stood outside the locker room and pondered that very possibility.

"This is gettin' close," Homer Drew said.

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