HOUSTON — LaceDarius Dunn quickly got the ball back from Tweety Carter to complete the alley-oop dunk, then turned and flashed a wide smile.
Baylor was having all the fun Friday night, and now the Bears are only one victory away from the Final Four.
Dunn and Carter both made 3-pointers on their first shots and later hooked up on their highlight play as Baylor rushed to a huge lead. With a 72-49 romp over Omar Samhan and surprising Saint Mary’s in the South Regional semifinal, the Bears have reached the NCAA tournament’s round of eight less than seven years after a tragic summer nearly destroyed their program.
“That’s the reason why we came here. To be a part of something special,” Carter said. “It really means a lot to me, this team, this program, for us to come through all the adversity.”
Dunn and Carter, two top Louisiana high school players who were recruited by other established programs, came to Baylor in the reeling aftermath from a murder and scandal that shook the world’s largest Baptist university like nothing in its history.
Coach Scott Drew had to rebuild with reduced scholarships, a roster decimated when the top three scorers were allowed to transfer and an unprecedented half-season after the NCAA considered shutting the program down a whole year. Now that is finally starting to seem like a long time ago.
Led by Dunn and Carter, the team picked 10th in the preseason Big 12 poll by the league’s coaches last fall still has a chance to win the national title. Dunn scored 23 points with four 3-pointers and Carter had 14 points.
“It’s a good step for us, hopefully we can take a couple of more,” said Josh Lomers, the only senior other than Carter on the roster. “Hopefully it can keep growing for decades in the future.”
The third-seeded Bears (28-7) led 46-17 at halftime and could begin looking ahead to Sunday, when they will play for a chance at their first Final Four since 1950, when there were only eight teams in the field.
Samhan, who had become a breakout star in the tournament with his dominating play in the first two rounds and the one-liners when talking or tweeting, finished with 15 points and nine rebounds for the Gaels (28-6). He shot 1 for 8 and had only three points at halftime.
“I’ve never been more proud of anything in my life than this team and this coaching staff,” Samhan said. “So it didn’t matter how it ended.”
With Samhan held in check, the tiny school from Moraga that beat Villanova and Richmond earlier in the tournament was headed home after shooting only 35 percent (19 for 54).
“Bottom line, when it was all said and done, I was proud of what we did this year,” coach Randy Bennett said. “I told them that we stunk tonight. ... Nobody wanted it to go that way but it went that way.”
During the interview sessions the day before the game, Samhan stopped and waved to everyone when he stepped onto the stage. There was the often-comedic interaction with two of his teammates during the 15-minute session and the 6-foot-11 center made sure the television cameras were aimed on him at one point before professing his love to singer Taylor Swift.
Dunn, Carter and Baylor post player Ekpe Udoh, meanwhile, rarely smiled while answering questions directly. They were already to play, expecting to continue this “business trip” not far from home — a 31⁄2-hour drive from their Waco campus.
Carter hit a 3-pointer from the top of the key on his first shot, then Dunn hit one on the next Baylor possession.
“We come out and just play, with the coach that we have that allows us to come out and be ourselves,” Carter said. “It really helps you relax and know that you can make those shots.”
Even when things didn’t go exactly as planned, the Bears were still were making things happen.When an earlier ally-oop attempt from Carter was off-target, Dunn grabbed the ball out of the air, took a couple of steps along the baseline, then turned and hit a short jumper. That was part of a 9-0 run that put the Bears in control early.