DENVER — Caleb Lohner scored a season-best 13 points in just 18 minutes, and No. 3 seed Baylor beat UC Santa Barbara 74-56 in the first round of the NCAA Tournament on Friday.
“I was ready when my number was called,” said Lohner, who matched his scoring output from his previous 15 games combined. “I think my role on this team is just to do whatever I can to help win.”
His help started well before tipoff, too.
Lohner, whose only other double-digit performance since transferring from BYU in 2022 came back in November, shared some tips about handling the high altitude.
“Me and (coach Scott Drew) actually had this conversation yesterday, and I told him we should be drinking 10 to 12 water bottles,” Lohner said.
The well-hydrated Bears were led by Adam Flagler’s 18 points. LJ Cryer scored 11 of his 15 points in the second half, when Baylor held the Gauchos to just 20 points on 30 percent shooting.
“The players deserve all the credit,” Drew said. “I thought our bench did a really good job, especially at altitude. Having a deep bench helps in an early morning game. I thought in the second half, (the Gauchos) had some good looks but they were just short on shots. We were short on shots, too. But I really credit the guys for locking in defensively.”
Next up for the Bears (23-10) is sixth-seeded Creighton or No. 11 seed North Carolina State on Sunday in the South Region.
In the opening minutes, the 14th-seeded Gauchos (27-8) looked like easy pickings for Baylor and its trio of guards Flagler, Cryer and Big 12 freshman of the year Keyonte George. But UC Santa Barbara used a 13-1 run to build a 26-22 lead.
The Gauchos led the Mountain West Conference with a .493 shooting percentage and that sharpshooting carried over to Ball Arena, where they shot 61.5 percent in the first half to take a 36-35 lead into the locker room.
But that all went away after halftime. The Gauchos succumbed to the thin air, Baylor’s deeper bench and the Bears’ smothering defense.
Miles Norris led UC Santa Barbara with 15 points. Ajay Mitchell added 13.
“I told our kids afterwards there’s nothing to hang our heads about,” Gauchos coach Joe Pasternack said. “We had a great first half. We ran out of steam in the second half.
“But we’re all going to be connected for life because they hung two championship banners, a regular season and a conference tournament championship, broke the (school) record for all-time wins by four games. That’s really hard to do in college basketball, and we’ll all be connected forever.”
Baylor sharpshooter Dale Bonner took advantage of an early dead ball to take off his undershirt and just play in his tank top jersey.
“I told him it was a great opportunity to show his muscles to the nation,” cracked Drew. “Maybe he’s a genius for that.”
The Bears, who won the national title two years ago, have a long history of March Madness maladies but avoided the same fate as their 2014-15 squad that lost as a third seed to 14th-seeded Georgia State 57-56. The following season, they lost to 12th-seeded Yale 79-75. And last year, they fell to eighth-seeded North Carolina 93-86 in overtime in the second round as a No. 1 seed.