MANHATTAN, Kan. — Kenny Chery kept stepping to the free-throw line and kept knocking them down. Ten times in a row.
The stretch of perfection came in the midst of 17 straight made free throws for Baylor, and was part of a 29-point outpouring by the junior guard that helped the streaking Bears hold on for a tense 76-74 victory over Kansas State on Saturday.
“Our senior leadership got us together and said, `We need to make free throws,” said Chery, who finished 13 of 14 from the line. “We made them.”
Kansas State had the ball with three-tenths of a second left, but Will Spradling’s full-court inbound pass was picked off by Cory Jefferson, allowing time to run out.
“They made plays. You have to give them credit,” Kansas State coach Bruce Weber said.
Jefferson added 16 points for the Bears (21-10, 9-9 Big 12), who erased a 12-point second-half deficit to win for the seventh time in their last eight games. They also beat the Wildcats (20-11, 10-8) twice in the same season for the first time in school history.
Baylor’s winning stretch coincides with the return of Chery to the starting lineup. He had been struggling with turf toe earlier in the season, when the Bears were slip-sliding through the conference schedule and in danger of being eliminated from NCAA tournament contention.
Now, they’re riding a wave of momentum into next week’s Big 12 tournament.
“I wouldn’t pick against us right now,” Baylor coach Scott Drew said. “I think our guys have showed we have some resiliency, we have some toughness and we have some heart.”
Marcus Foster scored 29 points while Thomas Gipson added 16 and Nino Williams 15 for the Wildcats, who had their school-record 15-game winning streak at Bramlage Coliseum come to an end.
“I don’t know what our chances are in March Madness,” Gipson said. “But we want to win the Big 12 tournament so that we have a chance.”
At least, be assured of a chance. Kansas State and Baylor have both done enough to warrant strong consideration as at-large picks when Selection Sunday rolls around.
That’s a far cry from where they started the season. The Wildcats lost their opener at home to Northern Colorado, while the Bears at one point lost five straight Big 12 games. Both of them managed to pick up some marquee wins, though, taking some of the pressure off next week.
“We’ve still got games left,” Weber said. “And I hope they’re ready to play in Kansas City and they can make amends for today’s loss.”
The Wildcats would have felt even better about their chances if they would have protected a 33-25 halftime lead that eventually grew to 12 points early in the second half.
That’s when the Wildcats went cold from the field, making two field goals in an eight minute stretch, and seemed to stop defending the Bears altogether.
“Once they got rolling,” Gipson said, “it was hard for us to stop.”
Brady Heslip’s three-pointer with about 10 minutes remaining gave Baylor its first lead, but it was still 46-all with about eight minutes left when the Wildcats started to miss free throws. They clanked out five of six at one point, and the Bears slowly crept out to a 56-49 lead.
Every time the Wildcats threatened to get close, the Bears had an answer.
Foster hit a three-pointer to make it 66-62, and Royce O’Neale was fouled and made two free throws. Foster hit another three, Chery made two free throws. Gipson scored with 31 seconds left to make it 70-67, and Chery again stepped to the foul line and made two free throws.
“Kenny was huge,” Drew said. “He’s been great from the free-throw line.”
Gary Franklin added two more free throws with 14.4 seconds left, and after Foster’s final three-pointer, Chery finished off the incredible display of foul shooting with two more to wrap it up.
“Free-throw shooting is kind of like field-goal kicking. You just never really know,” Drew said. “We’ve worked hard on free-throw shooting, and I’m glad the guys who have shot it well. The close games, you got to make free throws. That’s been critical to getting wins down the stretch.”