INDIANAPOLIS — Dear Gonzaga,
You think that was tough? Happen to notice the first half of the Baylor-Houston game? This perfection business is getting to be really, really hard work, isn’t it?
In an NCAA tournament where no narrative seems to stay the same for 48 hours, the winds have changed again. Gonzaga is still here, inexplicably and miraculously, no longer a dominant and unstoppable force but the survivor of an epic game. And not an unlucky one at that.
Apparently fate did not want the Zags gone, no matter how hard UCLA tried to prove otherwise. The history books have been waiting for Gonzaga because of its record, but now there must be room cleared out early because of one shot. Freshman Jalen Suggs’ banked-in 3-pointer from the Indianapolis suburbs at the overtime buzzer goes non-stop to the inner chamber of the most memorable plays in NCAA tournament history. In the parlance of 2021, it doesn’t even need to be tested or quarantined.
“This is something you dream up as a kid, and practice on a mini-hoop,” Suggs would say 45 minutes after his Hail Mary banked in to beat UCLA 93-90. “I’ve got so many things going on in my head. I just can’t believe that happened.”
As coach Mark Few put it, “We were lucky enough to hit a 50-footer.”
Or from the other side and the land of anguish, UCLA coach Mick Cronin: “These guys, they deserved a better ending ... Sometimes things aren’t meant to be.”
No, Gonzaga has still yet to be beaten, but the Zags could have been. And now for the next two days, there can be debate on what that overtime escape over the relentless, persistent we-ain’t-going-anywhere Bruins meant.
Did it show the Zags’ vulnerability? Can bold quickness and an unstoppable guard do them in? Because UCLA had a ton of the former and Johnny Juzang’s 29 points as the latter. “We felt like we could have done it all,” Juzang said.
Or was this the moment of truth that most teams must eventually face, and was it really another testament to Gonzaga destiny that the Zags could find a way to win a game that wasn’t leaning 15 points their way in the final minutes?
We knew Gonzaga had offense and defense. Now we know the Zags have magic.
That’s the description Few used for Suggs. “He’s got that magical aura,” Few said. “He makes them in practice all the time.” Few said he knew that shot was good when he saw it taken. “I don’t know if he really believed it was going in,” Suggs said later. “Because I didn’t.”
Winning an undeniably instant classic often takes a team to great places. And classic this was. UCLA shot 57.6 percent, committed only 10 turnovers and lost. Gonzaga shot 58.7 percent, had 10 turnovers, outscored the Bruins 56-24 in the paint and 15-0 in fast break points and barely won. There were 19 lead changes and 15 ties. The starting lineups were all marathon men, six different players going at least 40 minutes, Juzang all 45. In a game with 183 points, the two benches contributed only two field goals.
“Both teams battled, battled and dug as deep as they could,” Few said. “We just played a really, really hot team that was playing fantastic basketball.”
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There was a gaggle of wonderful plays, including Suggs — giving away five inches — blocking Cody Riley’s dunk and turning it into a fast break basket with risky whip pass to Drew Timme in the final two minutes of regulation. It was almost a turnover, and had it been, Gonzaga was probably a goner. There was Juzang in the right place for a rebound basket to tie the game with three seconds left in overtime.
But those last three seconds are what will live the immortal life of future highlights. Few seldom calls timeout in that situation, preferring to let one of his players speed the ball up the court before the defense can get set. Cronin had no timeouts to call but was running down the court yelling for his players to trap Suggs and slow his advance. Suggs tried to dribble as far as he could while leaving time for the shot, and the clock in his head was precise and, for UCLA, deadly. He remembered later having one thought after he let it fly. Please go in.
Every Indianapolis person watching the moment might have had another thought: That looked an awful lot like Gordon Hayward’s shot in the last seconds against Duke in the 2010 national championship game. Same Lucas Oil Stadium as Suggs. Came from the same right side as Suggs. Banked, liked Suggs. One difference. “Mine went in,” Suggs said.
The NCAA tournament buzzer-beater that had always been Suggs' favorite was Villanova’s Kris Jenkins to beat North Carolina in 2016 for the national championship. This was not for the title, so it would be a notch below that. But only a notch.
Or will it mean a championship in the end? That’s where Baylor comes in.
The halftime score from the first game was astonishing. Baylor 45, Houston 20.
Whether this is a season for the ages for Baylor remains to be seen. Check back Monday night. But this was certainly 20 minutes for the ages. Only one Cougar had an immunity against the Bears’ defense. Marcus Sasser had 17 points and was 6-for-11, everybody else in a Houston uniform was 1-for-15. Baylor had 45 points in a half against the same Houston defense that had given Syracuse only 46 the entire game the week before. Jared Butler had 17 points for Baylor — or just three fewer than the entire Cougars team. Houston had two more turnovers than it had field goals. Baylor had five more assists than Houston had field goals. The Bears had only one fewer steal than Houston had field goals.
The rout ended 78-59 as the Bears went cruising the second half.
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Baylor could not have sent clearer message to Gonzaga had the Bears emailed the Zags a card that read, See you Monday night. “We didn’t come all this way not to win it all. We came to show who we are,” Butler said.
Baylor was as unbeaten as Gonzaga until a three-week February COVID pause, and the Bears have been trying to regain the magic and mojo since. The first half Saturday seemed pretty definitive. That 27-2 record might not be as spotless as the Zags’, but it has suddenly become loud.
“If we’re not where we were,” coach Scott Drew said, “I can’t see the difference.”
So what happens next? “We’ve just got to finish it,” Butler said. Certainly he understands who the finish must come against. “I think we match up pretty well. They’ve got pros, we’ve got pros. They win a lot of games, we win a lot of games.”
It was nearly 13 months ago that Baylor was 26-4 and making very big plans for March. Then March suddenly vanished. A Bears team confident it would roll to the school’s first Final Four in 70 years had no way to prove it. “It was like a tornado hitting our town and destroying everything,” Butler said. “We couldn’t understand it, we couldn’t fathom it and it didn’t sink in until later.”
In the stands Saturday night were Freddie Gillespie, Devonte Bandoo and Tristan Clark, three key players off that team who were back this year to cheer, if they could not play. “Moments like that make you reflect,” Drew said, “and you feel so bad for guys who didn’t have that opportunity and never will.”
What the others could do was come back and try again for a program that has never won a national title, nor even played for one since 1948. “Create Baylor as blue blood,” Butler said was the goal. These Bears have waited for this chance for two years, not one. And now Gonzaga is the chance.
The two teams were 90 minutes away from playing in Indianapolis four months ago when positive COVID tests on the Zags’ side stopped everything. Riding together after the press conference announcing the cancellation, Drew and Gonzaga coach Mark Few joked that the game still might happen in Indianapolis — in April. “That sounds like a better idea,” Drew said was their thinking then.
Here they are now, after a wondrous Baylor half, a wondrous Gonzaga-UCLA game, and a wondrous Jalen Suggs shot.
“When dreams start to become realities and you're able to experience those things, it's special," Suggs said. "And those are things you've got to cherish. You're never going to get another moment like this. You'll never be able to relive this.”
Gonzaga is the survivor, needing a prayer to move forward. Baylor is rolling like an unbeaten team. How could anyone know what happens next?