By STEPHEN HAWKINS AP Sports Writer
Matthew Mayer scored a career-high 22 points that included a dunk and salute just before halftime, and defending national champion Baylor opened the NCAA Tournament at Fort Worth’s Dickies Arena with an 85-49 victory over Norfolk State on Thursday.
Freshman standout Jeremy Sochan added 15 points and seven rebounds for the Bears (27-6), the top seed in the East Regional who had to travel less than 100 miles from their Waco campus for the first NCAA tourney games at Dickies Arena. They will play the North Carolina-Marquette winner in the second round Saturday.
Mid-Eastern Athletic Conference player of the year Joe Bryant had 15 points for 16th-seeded Norfolk State (24-7), which was playing 10 years and a day after pulling off one of the biggest upsets in NCAA Tournament history. The Spartans were a No. 15 seed and 21 1/2-point underdog when they beat Missouri 86-84.
The Spartans were one of the biggest underdogs in first-round games this year, at 20 1/2 points, according to FanDuel Sportsbook. Despite some size up front, they couldn’t keep up with the Bears and never came close to an upset.
Flo Thamba scored 14 points and Adam Flagler had 11 points for the Bears after some early foul trouble. James Akinjo, the graduate transfer from Arizona who also previously played at Georgetown, had 10 points and 10 assists in his first-ever NCAA tourney game.
Baylor, which shot 57% from the field and made 11 3-pointers, led throughout. Flagler hit a 3 and made a nifty floater in the lane to make it 5-0. He also picked up his second foul less than three minutes into the game.
Mayer capped the first half with his breakaway slam, thanks in part to Norfolk State’s Tyrese Jenkins.
After Bryant tumbled to the floor when missing a reverse layup, Sochan grabbed the rebound and took a couple of dribbles while still in the lane under Norfolk State’s basket. Jackson then reached from behind and swatted the ball out of his hands – into the air past midcourt, where it bounced once and was picked up by a breaking Mayer, who dribbled around a defender for the dunk.
Mayer then directed a salute with his left hand toward the Spartans’ pep band with the Bears up 43-27 at halftime.
Jenkins hit a 3-pointer to start the scoring in the second half, but Norfolk State never got closer.
Norfolk State: Senior guard Jalen Hawkins, the team’s second-leading scorer at 13.4 points a game, didn’t play the first half because of a violation of team rules. He didn’t enter the game until 16:45 remained and the Spartans were down 56-35 by the time he took his first shot two minutes later, an airball on a long 3-pointer. He then came out of the game, and never returned.
Baylor: Mayer has been inconsistent at times this season while starting every game after no starts his first three seasons. But the 6-foot-9 senior is a high-energy player on both ends of the floor who can score in bunches, and could have a big impact in the NCAA Tournament with the Bears missing their big man known as “Everyday Jon.” Jonathan Tchamwa Tchatchoua suffered a season-ending left knee injury Feb. 12.
Norfolk State: The Spartans will go into next season looking to finish .500 or above in conference play for the 25th season in a row. Only four other schools nationally ended this year with longer streaks.
Baylor: The Bears have advanced past the first round in five consecutive NCAA appearances since opening-round losses to 14th-seeded Georgia State in 2015 and 12th-seeded Yale the following year.