DETROIT — On Sunday morning, before Braedon Bayer replaced Syracuse starting point guard Frank Howard with the season on the line, before he picked up a steal and block in the closing minutes, Greg Bayer sent his son a short text from his Phoenix hotel.
“I texted him the mantra he’s known all year,” Greg Bayer, Braedon’s father, said: “Stay ready.”
“You know I always am,” Braedon texted back.
Around the Syracuse locker room, players and coaches echoed variations of the same phrase: “Stay ready,” for months. Bayer was caught in the in-between, being told his time could come at any moment but rarely seeing it come to fruition. The phrase became a running joke on the team, because he’d be told to “stay ready” before nearly every game, then he’d ride the bench.
Not on Sunday. When Howard fouled out with 6:29 left, the 11th-seeded Orange (23-13, 8-10 Atlantic Coast) trailed by four points and a potent third-seeded Michigan State (30-5, 16-2 Big Ten) attack was on the verge of pulling away at a loud Little Caesars Arena, full of nearly all green and white. Enter Bayer, a former walk-on who spent six weeks on then-SU star Tyler Lydon’s couch when he was trying out for the team. The 6-foot-4 guard, who was playing Division-III hoops in Iowa just over two years ago, recorded a key block on MSU star and likely NBA lottery selection Miles Bridges in the 55-53 victory. Bayer added a steal and forced two jump balls over the final six minutes of the game, preserving the Orange’s season and setting up a matchup with No. 2 seed Duke on Friday in Omaha, Nebraska.
“To be put in that position, to stay focused and keep this team going, that was phenomenal,” Syracuse associate head coach Adrian Autry said. “He had an unbelievable hustle play at the end not to five up two points and help us win.”
With Syracuse up 50-49 and 1:38 locked on the clock, Bayer darted to the low block and met Bridges at full speed. He got a hand on MSU’s star, who scored 11 points. The Syracuse sideline erupted in unison. Then, Bayer stole the ball from Joshua Langford after a missed tip-in with eight seconds left. All the while, he altered a pair of shots at the top of Syracuse’s 2-3 zone alongside sophomore guard Tyus Battle, who led the Orange with 17 points. Bayer, for all the minutes he sat on the bench and didn’t come in, shined in the biggest moments of Syracuse’s season.
Out in Phoenix, Bayer’s father was at a conference for the wealth management firm he founded. He was alongside his wife, Crystal, with about 35 other people at the Arizona Biltmore Hotel. Downstairs, at Frank & Albert’s bar, Bayer’s parents watched the game from a TV. When Howard was called with his fourth foul, they looked at each other to confirm the situation: Braedon may just go in the game. The possibility that he would play grew closer and closer to reality.
The Bayers jumped up from their seats when head coach Jim Boeheim motioned for him to run to the scorer’s table, Greg Bayer said in a brief phone conversation after the game. Howard Washington, Syracuse’s freshman guard out for the year due to an injury, walked up to Bayer before he walked on the court. In a way, Washington said that he could relate to Bayer. Before his injury, Washington was similarly riding the bench for the majority of games as his superiors, Battle and Howard, carried SU offensively. So Washington put his arms around Bayer.
“You’ve been preparing for this, practicing all year for this,” Washington told Bayer during the embrace. “Go in there, take your time, play your game, play hard.”
“And that block at the end?” Washington added postgame. “He’s made that play all of the time in practice. The ‘stay ready’ thing, coach (Boeheim) would say it every game and (Bayer) wouldn’t get in. Braedon was kind of like, ‘Well, coach is just saying this.’ But he brought it every day in practice and was huge today.”
An hour after the final horn sounded, Bayer’s father looked back on his son’s rise to this stage, from overlooked high school player to Division III standout to a walk-on for a Power 5 team, to SU’s last scholarship player.
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“Braedon came in, hadn’t played much the entire year, stepped up and played some great defense,” Battle said. “And it’s just the heart of this team. It’s amazing. It’s amazing.”
Two years ago, Bayer watched Syracuse’s Final Four run from his bed in his South Campus apartment. Before that, he worked out every day at 6 a.m. for six weeks with former SU star and NBA draft pick Tyler Lydon and Autry. He was sleeping on Lydon’s couch because he had nowhere else to stay. He wanted to play at Syracuse after a season and a half at D-III Grinnell College.
By that May, Lydon told former Syracuse assistant coach Mike Hopkins that Bayer “wasn’t just going to be a typical walk-on that’s just on the team. He said I could actually help,” Bayer recalled. Hopkins trusted Lydon’s word and didn’t ask for a second of film. In the summer of 2016, Boeheim nonchalantly told Hopkins and Lydon that Bayer had earned a spot on the team as a walk-on.
On Sunday, he was called on in place of Howard, the second-most improved player in the ACC this season. After the game, Bayer was the one to place Syracuse’s sticker on its portable bracket, with the whole team rallying around him.
“Now it’s kind of sinking in,” Bayer said. “I never thought I’d be playing in this stage at all. Just thought I’d be watching it from the bench.
“I’ve worked my whole life for this.”
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