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NCAA Tournament: Gonzaga storms into Sweet 16, cruises past Baylor 83-71

Brandon Clarke dismantled the Bears.

NCAA Basketball: NCAA Tournament-Second Round-Baylor vs Gonzaga Gary A. Vasquez-USA TODAY Sports

Gonzaga passed its first high-major test in over three months with ease, knocking off Baylor, 83-71, to reach its fifth consecutive Sweet 16.

Brandon Clarke was transcendent all night long (36 points, five blocks, eight rebounds). The San Jose State transfer scored 18 of his points in a first half that saw the Bulldogs run out to a 39-23 lead at the break. Gonzaga’s typically stout defense held the Bears to just 29.6 percent first half shooting, and were particularly adept running the Big 12 at-large off the three-point line (1-10 3FG).

But it was Clarke’s aerial display that grabbed the early headlines.

Baylor did not wilt, coming out of the locker room with an early surge.

The Bears opened the second half on a 10-0 run, punctuated by a suddenly hot stretch from three courtesy of King McClure and Makai Mason. Mark Vital continued the push, as several hard-charging layups cut the Gonzaga deficit to just five (43-38) before the under 16 media timeout.

Clarke then took over again, with a personal 6-0 spurt to stretch the lead back out. That included the block below, which came with a mystified Steve Lappas — who was all of us — reciting the mind-blowing stat below:

The Bears had more offensive rhythm throughout the second half, but the Zags depth kept them at bay. In one two-minute stretch midway through the half, Zach Norvell (nine points), Josh Perkins (11 points, six assists) and Corey Kispert (16 points) hit assisted three-pointers off solid offensive action, showcasing the nation’s most efficient offense.

Gonzaga had the most trouble with Vital, as the sophomore forward tortured the Zags on drives and scored 17 points (7-9 FG) despite being saddled with foul trouble throughout.

The Bears flirted with mounting a true threat through the final 10 minutes, keeping the deficit right around 10. They did have the game at nine points with just over a minute left before Kispert drilled a three to skew the outcome heavily in the Zags’ favor. Baylor’s comeback bid was tempered down the stretch as Scott Drew had to call his final timeout with just over five minutes left.

Notably, Killian Tillie (two points, four fouls) had his quietest game since returning from injury in the WCC Tournament. Rui Hachimura (six points, 2-6 FG) also was kept relatively under wraps, but it wasn’t needed with Clarke’s shining night in Salt Lake City.

The Zags next head to Anaheim to play fourth-seeded Florida State, which blew out Ja Morant and Murray State earlier Saturday to reach the tournament’s second weekend. The Bulldogs will seek their third Elite Eight appearance since 2015.