NCAA championship: Baylor wins first national title, spoils Gonzaga’s perfection
They were the teams most expected to be here, the pandemic and colossal upsets willing.
Baylor faced no such resistance on the way to the championship game, its closest call of the tournament a nine-point victory over Arkansas.
When the tournament’s top overall seeds finally met Monday night inside Lucas Oil Stadium, four months to the day that their previously scheduled game in this city was wiped out by COVID-19, they unfurled an early April surprise.
Unleashing its own brand of perfection, Baylor used smothering defense and a flurry of three-pointers to run away with an 86-70 victory, capturing the school’s first national title while denying Gonzaga’s bid to join the pantheon of unbeaten teams.
“They were just so much more aggressive,” Bulldogs coach Mark Few said after his team fell short of becoming the first since the 1976 Indiana Hoosiers to finish a season undefeated. “They literally busted us out of anything we could do on offense and we couldn’t get anything generated.”
One year after the NCAA tournament was canceled because of the pandemic — a 2020 Final Four banner hanging inside this stadium as a solitary ode to a different kind of March Madness — this matchup of heavyweights heralded a triumphant return. It was Baylor (28-2) that delivered an early knockout blow in becoming the fifth consecutive team ranked No. 2 in the preseason to topple its No. 1 counterpart in the championship game.
“We weren’t going to have any regrets with this tournament,” Bears coach Scott Drew said. “We were going to leave it all on the court.”
It was essentially over by the end of a first half that felt like it was played on fast forward, leaving Gonzaga and an offense that’s usually the most high-powered on the court scrolling to catch up.
Baylor scored the game’s first nine points, the Bulldogs (31-1) finally getting on the board with a free throw only to watch their deficit mushroom by the moment. Baylor’s lead grew from 9-1 to 16-4 to 29-10. Gonzaga was getting lapped like a pace car at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway.
By halftime, the Bulldogs shaved their deficit to 10 points, providing a glimmer of hope. But Baylor guard Jared Butler sunk two three-pointers early in the second half and that was that. Butler finished with 22 points, making four of nine three-pointers, to lead four Bears scoring in double figures.
Coach Mick Cronin, back home with his team in L.A., says loss to Gonzaga should not wipe out the glory of UCLA’s magical NCAA tournament run.
“One thing I can tell you about our guys,” Drew said, “when the best is needed, the best is provided.”
Two days after his 40-footer at the overtime buzzer left UCLA shattered, Suggs was the one in tears. He scored 22 points, making eight of 15 shots, but didn’t get nearly enough support. Forward Drew Timme scored 12 points but committed five of his team’s 14 turnovers, ceasing his mustache-stroking celebrations that had become a season-long tradition.
“You kind of forget what it’s like to lose,” Gonzaga sharpshooter Corey Kispert said, alluding to his team having last fallen in February 2020, notching 35 consecutive victories before Monday.
Baylor might have finished the season unbeaten had it not been forced to push through its own coronavirus issues in February. The team’s season was placed on a three-week pause, preceding its only losses of the season.
Just as intriguing as the collection of talent on the court was the backstory of the coaches jostling to produce the most goosebumps.
Few had built a tiny school nestled in the gently rolling hills of eastern Washington into a national powerhouse after taking over the program in 1999.
He was seeking a breakthrough after enduring a lifetime’s worth of March setbacks, including a loss to North Carolina in the 2017 national championship game.
The challenge confronting Drew upon his arrival in 2003 was far more harrowing, the coach taking over a program decimated by the murder of player Patrick Dennehy by a teammate.
Along the way to this once-in-a-lifetime meeting, Few and Drew became close friends. They furiously attempted to reschedule the canceled game from earlier this season, finally conceding defeat, and sent each other encouraging texts before every game.
Once they reached the NCAA tournament bubble — each team sequestered on a floor of its hotel with scores of police cars and fencing stationed menacingly outside — the coaches became pickleball partners, going unbeaten.
In the end, there could only be one winner. It was Drew and the Bears, capping a season unlike any other.
Baylor might even go so far as to call it perfection.
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