Baylor denies Gonzaga a perfect season, winning NCAA men’s basketball title

By Billy Witz

There was a symmetry about Gonzaga’s arrival in the NCAA men’s basketball championship game — the unbeaten Zags bidding to be the first unblemished champion since Indiana, the state’s flagship basketball school, last accomplished the feat in 1976.

That Gonzaga, the small Jesuit school tucked away in the Northwest on the less urbane side of the Cascade Range, rolled up with a freewheeling offense, one that would appeal to the basketball cognoscenti’s “Hoosiers” sensibilities, was all the better.

A Gonzaga victory would have also put a bow on an anomalous season that was played through the coronavirus pandemic, when about one in five games — including a first-round matchup in this tournament — were called off and some teams went weeks without being able to play.

Baylor, though, had other ideas, laying waste to those plans with a wrecking ball defense and a hail of 3-pointers, emphatically ruining Gonzaga’s bid for a perfect season Monday night with an 86-70 victory at Lucas Oil Stadium in Indianapolis to claim the program’s first championship.

Baylor’s guard trio, advertised as the best in the country, was as good as its billing with Jared Butler scoring 22 points with seven assists, Davion Mitchell adding 15 points and five assists, and MaCio Teague contributing 19 points. And the Baylor defense held the Zags to a season-low point total.

As the final buzzer sounded, the Bears — who were eliminated by Gonzaga in the second round two years ago — bounded off the bench and onto the court, having vanquished the team they had long been eyeing.

“It’s harder to win it this year than ever before with the stoppages and testing and the sacrificing your social life just so you can play basketball games,” said Butler, the tournament’s most outstanding player after athletes spent more than three weeks in an Indianapolis hotel, playing in front of diminished crowds and precluded from coming in contact with their families. “Having no fans sometimes, it’s just hard to get up sometimes for these games.”

He added: “It was really cool to say we did that in the midst of adversity, in the midst of tribulations, and to bring it home for Baylor, it’s amazing.”

As Baylor celebrated, Gonzaga’s players huddled in front of their bench, arms draped over each other’s shoulders coming to grips with an unfamiliar emotion, experiencing their first loss in 14 months.

“You really do forget what it’s like to lose,” said Corey Kispert, Gonzaga’s senior forward. “And every time it happens, it doesn’t feel good.”

Almost from the moment the season tipped off in late November, the Bears (28-2) had laid in the shadow of Gonzaga (31-1), and they entered the tournament as they entered the season — as the second-ranked team in the country.

As Baylor cruised past Houston in one semifinal Saturday night, Gonzaga had less than 48 hours to recover from an overtime slugfest with UCLA that was as draining emotionally as it was physically. They had staved off the No. 11-seeded Bruins only when Jalen Suggs banked in a shot from near half court at the buzzer.

The Zags looked out on their feet at the opening tip.

When the jump ball goes up at the start of a basketball championship game, the football stadiums where title events are now staged are typically pulsating with energy. But because of local health restrictions, this stadium floor was sheathed in half by a black curtain and only about 20% of the building’s seats were filled. The official attendance was not announced.

If the energy wasn’t supplied by the crowd, the Bears brought their own, scoring the first nine points of the game, and Gonzaga never drew closer than eight. Baylor, the best 3-point shooting team in the country during the regular season, met its standard by making 10 of 23 shots behind the arc. The Bears also dominated the boards, out-rebounding Gonzaga by 38-22, and limited the breakneck Zags to 15 fast-break points.

“I never felt like we played with that weight all year,” Gonzaga coach Mark Few said. “I always felt like we were the aggressor and we were always — I call it attack mode. We just ran into a team tonight that was — they were the aggressor clearly.”

Baylor, which was in the championship game for the first time since 1948, became the second team from Texas to win a title — the other being Texas-Western, whose landmark victory in 1966 was the first achieved with an all-Black lineup.

If Gonzaga was trying to complete its rise from basketball backwater over the last two decades to a national champion, the Bears title capped an ascent from a far darker place.

When Baylor coach Scott Drew was hired 18 years ago, it was in the aftermath of one of the sport’s most notorious scandals that centered around one Baylor player murdering another and the coach at the time urging his other players to lie to investigators.

Baylor won 21 games in the first three seasons under Drew, who held tryouts for walk-ons in those early years. Twice the Bears had been beaten in a regional final and last year they were set to enter the tournament as a top seed before it was wiped out by the pandemic.

“We weren’t going to have any regrets with this tournament,” Drew said. “We were going to leave it on the court.”

This rare matchup of the top-ranked teams was a long time coming.

The two coaches, Drew and Few, have a deep connection. Baylor has two assistants who have worked or played for Few; Gonzaga has one who has worked for Drew’s brother, Bryce.

The coaches are avid fishermen — “he’s the king of fly fishing; I think I’m king of the bass fishing,” Drew said — and have teamed up as pickleball partners during their time in Indianapolis, sending text messages to each other with a prayer and good luck wishes before each game here.

Their scheduled game in Indianapolis on Dec. 5 was canceled 90 minutes before tipoff because of a positive test within Gonzaga’s traveling party.

As Drew and Few were riding back to their hotel after a news conference, they joked about meeting again in April. Still, they tried furiously to reschedule the game, in part because of their obligation to broadcast partners but also because they thought such a matchup would generate attention on the sport when many viewers were focused on football.

They considered Indianapolis; Las Vegas; Kansas City, Missouri; Phoenix; and Sioux Falls, South Dakota — also Fort Worth, Texas, although that was too close to a Baylor home game for Few.

“Our futile human plans,” Few called the arrangements.

Baylor kept pace with Gonzaga for three months until it was thrown off course by the coronavirus. The Bears, who won their first 18 games, didn’t play for 21 days beginning in early February. When they returned, they barely escaped against Iowa State, the last-place team in the Big 12 Conference, and then lost at Kansas. They recovered to win their next four games before being beaten by Oklahoma State in the Big 12 tournament semifinals.

A lockdown defense had suddenly become leaky.

“You can’t be good at defense and not practice it for three weeks, four weeks, five weeks,” said Drew, whose team played so frequently when it returned that there was little time to practice until the week between postseason tournaments. At a time when coaches dial back on practice, Drew worked his players hard.

“Our players really bought in that our defense was slipping,” he said.

The Bears held their six tournament opponents to an average of 61.7 points per game, throttling Gonzaga, Houston and Villanova, three of the top seven most efficient offenses in the country, according to statistical analyst Ken Pomeroy.

A sign of Baylor’s priorities came on the opening tip when it placed Mitchell, the national defensive player of the year, not on Suggs, the freshman who is expected to be one of the top picks in the NBA draft, but on Kispert, a sharpshooting forward who had been off his form for much of the tournament.

If Mitchell could neutralize Kispert, the Bears had the muscle, quickness and doggedness to handle everyone else. It quickly proved a shrewd assessment.

The Zags’ symphonic offense was knocked catawampus by Baylor’s relentless defense. And at the other end, Gonzaga’s defense offered scant resistance as a parade of Bears burst past their defenders leading to lay-ins and open, in-rhythm looks for the best 3-point shooting team in the country. Baylor made its first five 3-pointers and a little more than 7 minutes into the game had put Gonzaga in a 23-8 hole — its largest of the season.

“The start of the game was tremendous,” Butler said. “We didn’t look at the scoreboard — we just went out there and gave it our all.”

Such was a sign of Gonzaga’s desperation that the Zags — who found themselves behind by as many as 19 points — switched to a zone defense.

Each time Gonzaga surged in the second half, it could not string together enough stops to draw closer to the Bears. Suggs, after getting fouled on a layup for a pair of his team-high 22 points, exhorted the crowd and his teammates. But when Drew Timme picked up a pair of quick fouls, his third and fourth, and went to the bench with 11:36 left, it made the uphill climb even more arduous — and ultimately futile.

The feeling of falling short is a familiar one for Gonzaga, which lost to North Carolina in a taught final in 2017. Perhaps because this game wasn’t so close — or because of the extraordinary measures it took for college basketball to reach this point — Few maintained that the lone blemish would not ruin the season.

“Listen, I said you can’t go 31-0 and get to the last night and get beat and feel bad about it,” Few said, adding, “So I just said this will pass and you’ve got to give Baylor a ton of credit but just remember what an amazing, amazing year, what an amazing accomplishment even getting to this point it was.”

The point where an imperfect season fell short of a perfect ending.

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