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Mike Lopresti | | April 6, 2021

How Baylor proved it's now a 'legit powerhouse' in college basketball

Baylor vs. Gonzaga: Extended highlights from 2021 NCAA tournament

INDIANAPOLIS — After all the twists and turns and pauses and restarts, after the anguish over the positive tests results and the relief about the negatives, after five months when tomorrow was never a given, even to the best of them ... there is only Baylor. When this unprecedented and bizarre NCAA tournament mentioned, and it certainly will be for eons, the conversation will always start with the Bears.

They thought they could do this last year, and then March imploded. Many of the stars came back in pursuit of the very feeling they had Monday night. “We got the band back and we won,” said Jared Butler, who returned to become both a champion and the Most Outstanding Player after 22 points. “Gotta make a movie out of it.”

In the end, who could argue? No one. Certainly not Gonzaga, an unbeaten machine that had spent five months enjoying the comfort of big leads but was trailing 15 points in under seven minutes Monday night, and behind to stay forever. Nor anyone else who wandered into Baylor’s path in Indianapolis, none of whom could stay with the Bears, or even make them give up the ball. In six NCAA tournament games and 240 tournament minutes they had but 47 turnovers. In the last three games, when the stakes were the highest and the opposition the sternest, their biggest deficit was three points. They never trailed in the last 36 minutes of a game. They never trailed at all against Arkansas or Gonzaga.

“Our team has been special,” Scott Drew said. “They’re even better people. Four weeks in the bubble, trust me, I’d tell you if they’re not.”

No, the national championship trophy looked so right in the Bears’ hands Monday night after their 86-70 win because they fit the moment so well.

BAYLOR HISTORY: Here's what the world was like the last time Baylor was in the Final Four

In a season that required resilience, they rolled through the first two months, watched all the momentum stopped by a three-week COVID hiatus, then just rekindled their purpose anew. It was a clear case of persistence over panic when they took their only two losses in late February and early March.

In a tournament whose theme was rebirth, Baylor’s story felt right at home, having been reclaimed from the landfill of scandal and disrepute by an earnest and devout man in Drew. “He has the incredible ability for eternal optimism,” Gonzaga coach Mark Few had said. “That’s such a gift.” And Drew especially needed that back in the day. One Shining Moment sounded so powerful Monday night because it followed the darkness of last March. Well, Baylor basketball knows all about past darkness.

Check the headlines of 2003, when the Bears were light years away from the cohesive program on display in Indianapolis, whose reserves always stood behind the huddle at timeouts arm in arm, shattering anti-COVID protocol but answering their own call. Back in ’03, Baylor was known as the program where one teammate had murdered another, and a coach had covered up the truth. No future national champion has ever had to come back from that.

Drew took over a wreckage, never blinked and never looked back. Monday night was a time to remember the walk-on tryouts he was forced to hold to fill a roster. All the nights where Baylor was “going into every game being 30 or 40-point underdogs, and half your team walk-ons,” he said. All the under-talented guys back then who took pounding after pounding but got the program moving again. “It’s their championship as much as ours,” Drew said.

At a time and place in Indy 2021 when every minute had the feel of something strange and rare, what more appropriate championship game winner than someone who had not even played in it in 73 years, and had just won its first conference title since 1950? “When the best is needed the best is usually provided,” Drew said of his team. “The better the opponent the better they play, and they love being the first.”

Nothing had been easy for anyone in 2021, and Baylor had to make its own history by stopping someone else’s. When Drew and Few spoke before the game, they talked about what a grind the year had been for their players, in a world so strange some had given up girlfriends to avoid a virus risk. Drew told Few that if he had to lose, he’d prefer to lose to Gonzaga. Turned out that was no issue, never mind the Zags’ headlong drive to a perfect season.

Watch how Baylor was crowned national champions for the first time ever

“It’s a really, really tough one to end a storybook season on. But Baylor just beat us. They beat us in every facet of the game,” Few said. “I’ve been watching them all year and watching last year and I knew they were going to be a handful.”

In a season where everything and everyone seemed vulnerable sooner or later, Baylor was an unstoppable force when it got a whiff of the finish line in Indianapolis. The Bears had waited two rousingly successful years — when they went 54-6 — and endured last season’s aborted tournament for this opportunity.

“I thought we were on a mission to make the most of it,” Drew said. “If we lost we wanted to have no regrets.”

The final validation came Monday night in two parts — the sizzle and then the grit.

In the past two weeks, the Bears had become an Atlas rocket, blasting off the launch pad at tipoff. Opponent after opponent was forced into quick retreat.

They had 46 points by halftime to go up 18 against Arkansas.

Then 45 to lead Houston by 25.

Then 47 against Gonzaga. With a season full of routs behind them — other than the rather notable recent exception of UCLA — the Zags were in a first situation the likes of which they had never seen, and few would have ever imagined. They were behind 19 points.

Butler said the Bears didn’t even look at the scoreboard during the onslaught, they just kept attacking. “We were just going to let the crumbles (fall) where they fall. I know at some point we were up big because I was, like, we’re scoring, they aren’t scoring. Everybody was hitting shots, nobody was going to miss.”

MARCH MADNESS: 18 numbers that show Baylor's Final Four dominance

What was going on with all those devastating starts that put so many worthy opponents on the canvas? “Simple. Player-led team,” Drew said. “These guys didn’t want to lose for each other. They’re winners, they’re experienced, they’re tough, they love one another.”

Baylor is the finest 3-point shooting team in the land with its array of guards and the Bears let their long-range firepower do their talking against Gonzaga. By halftime, they had seven 3-pointers. Gonzaga had one. On defense, in Few’s words, “they literally busted us out of anything we could possibly do on offense”

The second half required will and poise and the unending need to make plays. Every challenge was answered, every Gonzaga move met by a countermove. The gap shrank to nine points, expanded to 20. The Bears owned the rebounding 38-22, and held the Zags to their lowest score of the season. They were the aggressor from the start, clearly eager to seize the mountaintop from the team that had been there since November. And as time ticked away, the shadows grew on Gonzaga. Nobody was getting out of this season without a bruise.

The 1976 Indiana Hoosiers could stop wondering if their reign as the last perfect champion was over. It wasn’t.

“You try to do everything within your power to flip the switch,” Few said. There would be no turnaround, no rally, no late Gonzaga rush at the end. This was Baylor’s stage and Baylor’s year. The Zags were No. 1 wire-to-wire this season. Until Monday night, when the Bears led wire-to-wire. Everything Baylor did seemed to match the moment.

“You really do forget what it’s like to lose,” said Corey Kispert, who has done it only 11 times now in four years. “Every time it happens, it doesn’t feel good. When you’re going against a team like that, that’s firing on all cylinders for 40 minutes, it’s really hard to compete with.”

The state of Texas had waited 55 years since its one and only champion — Texas Western in 1966. There have been contenders since, mostly Houston. But nobody could do what Baylor just did, this by program that until 13 years ago had been in one NCAA tournament in 57 years.

“They’re a legit powerhouse now in college basketball,” Few said. And he ought to know. Everyone does now. In the middle of a pandemic, a juggernaut was born.

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