December 29, 2014

Following a rocky season debut in the Top 25 last week, Baylor headed into its winter break with an eye on shoring things up in its final tune-up before the Big 12 opener.

As they return to action for the first time in eight days, the 22nd-ranked Bears go after their 23rd straight non-conference home victory Tuesday night against a Norfolk State team looking to extend its winning streak to four.

Baylor (10-1) followed its defeat to Illinois in the Las Vegas Invitational championship game Nov. 28 with four consecutive victories to break into the Top 25 for an eighth consecutive season.

The Bears' stay was almost short-lived as they had to make 11 of 12 free throws over the final 6:09 to hold on for a 70-66 home win over Southern on Dec. 22. They had been shooting 61.4 percent from the line - among the country's worst marks.

Johnathan Motley looks to continue his emergence after finishing with 19 points and six blocks. The redshirt freshman has averaged 19.0 points, 7.0 rebounds and 3.7 blocks over his last three games.

"I think his teammates are doing a great job of focusing in on him, having trust in him, and having belief in him," coach Scott Drew said. "I also think his approach is better. He had a couple bad games and then fixed his approach."

Rico Gathers was another bright spot, finishing with 16 points and 11 rebounds in the team's 11th straight home win. The junior has five double-doubles and ranks seventh nationally with 15.3 boards per 40 minutes.

The Bears rank 11th nationally in scoring defense at 55.0 per game and sit in the top five with a plus-11.5 rebounding margin, but they allowed a season-high point total while narrowly outrebounding Southern, which came in having lost all nine games against Division I teams, 38-34.

"We have a lot to work on," Drew said. "In a perfect world, (the winter break) is good because you come back because you're focused to get better and you're driven to get better."

The Bears hope to rediscover their previous form against Norfolk State (9-5), which has had the rebounding edge in its last 11 contests. Baylor then visits No. 18 Oklahoma on Jan. 3 to open what should be a challenging conference schedule.

"We're playing in the Big 12," Drew added. "I think (the conference is) on pace to have the best winning percentage going into conference of anybody in the last 10 years, so the Big 12 has been tremendous."

Following a 74-71 overtime win at James Madison on Dec. 22, the Spartans seek their longest winning streak since a 15-game run late in the 2012-13 season. They've averaged 80.0 points and shot 53.2 percent while winning five of six.

Baylor will certainly have to keep close watch on Jeff Short, who finished with a career-high 30 points against the Dukes. The guard is averaging 27.3 points while hitting 10 of 19 from 3-point range over his last three games.

In the only meeting between the schools, the Spartans fell 86-58 at Baylor on Nov. 13, 2009. They've dropped their last four versus ranked foes, including a 67-39 loss at then-No. 9 Virginia on Nov. 16.

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