Sunday, March 28, 2010 Updated: April 8, 1:36 PM ET
Carter's impact won't soon be forgotten
By Jeff Caplan ESPNDallas.com
HOUSTON -- Seated in a folding chair in Baylor's quiet postgame locker room, Tweety Carter's elbows dug into his thighs as his cheeks pressed into balled fists. The stoic senior point guard's bloodshot eyes finally couldn't hold back the tears.
His four-year run is over, having ended Sunday night, 78-71,beneath a smothering Duke defense and a late surge in the South Region final at a rocking, gold-and-green clad Reliant Stadium, one stop short of the Bears' first trip to the Final Four since 1950.
The top-seeded Blue Devils used a 15-3 run within the final four minutes to finally tame the third-seeded Bears and propel Duke into a national semifinal game against West Virginia on Saturday in Indianapolis. It's Duke's first Final Four since 2004.
So much of where this Baylor program is and where it's headed is a direct reflection of the polite, 5-foot-11 playmaker from Reserve, La. The school's first McDonald's All-American never even considered another school. He joined coach Scott Drew and came to Baylor in 2006 on a leap of faith and a belief that he could help the beleaguered program do something special.
Tweety Carter's impact on the Baylor program goes beyond his performance on the court, which was pretty impressive in itself.
He succeeded beyond anyone's wildest imagination. He leaves behind a basketball legacy that will be talked about in Waco coffee shops for a generation. He put Baylor back on the college basketball map for all the right reasons, leading the program to two NCAA tournaments and one wild ride. He will walk away in May with a diploma. Certainly, his basketball career will carry on somewhere.
The Bears will carry on from this sudden disappointment, too, and now better than ever. Having emerged from the depths of the summer of 2003, Carter proved to embody all that is right where so much had gone wrong.
"People across the nation will look at Baylor basketball and Baylor University in a more positive light or a different light because they know more about it now as far as basketball goes," Drew said. "I think the people that have read articles and seen the type of hearts and character our players have will see those are good kids.
"When he came, that attracted other people and then what attracted them even more was when they visited and had a chance to spend time with Tweety. A lot of guys are here because of him."
Yet, even having played his final game and asked to reflect on his time at Baylor and his immense impact on the program, he typically deferred accolades to those who came before him.
"The guys before me set the stage for what we got going on today. Those guys put a lot of their heart into coming to Baylor," Carter said. "It wasn't an easy school to just pick, especially with what they were going through. Those past guys that were before me set the tone, and me and [fellow senior] Josh [Lomers] just followed up with everything."
Carter's final game will be a tough one to let go. He played 38 of 40 minutes, scored 12 points and handed out four assists. But, against Duke's stifling, man-to-man defense, Carter hit just 1-of-6 field goals and was 0-of-4 from 3-point range in the second half.
In a back-and-forth game most of the way, Carter buried a 3-pointer with 4:52 left in the first half that ignited a 13-5 finishing kick. The Bears roared into halftime with a 35-32 lead.
Baylor took its final lead, 61-60, with 3:42 to go. The Bears limited Duke to 36.1 percent shooting while hitting 45.8 percent of their own shots. It came down to the power game in the trenches, and that's where Duke held the advantage. Key offensive rebounds led to second-chance points, the biggest coming with 3:36 to go.
Nolan Smith, Duke's MVP on Sunday with 29 points, tied it at 61-61 with his first free throw, but he missed the second. Lance Thomas came down with the rebound and kicked it back out to Smith, who splashed a 3-pointer for a four-point possession and a 64-61 lead that would only extend from there.
"I can't really explain it," said junior forward Ekpe Udoh, who had a monster game with 18 points, 10 rebounds, six assists and five blocked shots. "We just couldn't keep them off the glass. It hurt us because they were getting kick-out 3s."
In the aftermath, Carter took one last, longing look into the sea of more than 47,000 fans, the vast majority there to cheer on his resurgent Bears.
"I won't get to play in front of the Baylor fans," Carter said, rubbing his eyes, answering what he'll miss most. "You know it was great. It was great."
The Bears, picked to finish 10th by the Big 12 coaches in the preseason, will surely be a trendy pick to finish near the top of the league.
"We have talent," Udoh said. "Losing Tweety is going to be the toughest, but we have a talent in A.J. Walton. He's going to add things to his game that he saw from Tweety this year to be the leader for next year."
Of course, it remains to be seen if Udoh returns with the NBA beckoning. He didn't talk about his future, but Drew said he and Udoh will talk in the next couple of days. If Udoh leaves, the Bears will have a significant hole in their front line. But Baylor is a young team, the ninth-youngest in the country, Drew said, with six freshmen and three sophomores.
"Me and Tweety have had that brotherly love all season. He's been a big brother to me," said Walton, a freshman. "He took me under his wing. I'm really grateful and lucky to have had a senior point guard who just plays like he does. He was a floor general this year."
Right down to the end.
"We got a team full of young guys, and they came over and made us better each day in practice," Carter said. "It really hurts right now to know we're not going to the Final Four."
Jeff Caplan covers colleges for ESPN Dallas. You can follow him on Twitter or leave a question for his weekly mailbag.