INDIANAPOLIS — What does it look like when perfection is ruined? It looks like Gonzaga star Corey Kispert leaping to fire a 3-pointer his team desperately needs, seeing the flash of Baylor guard Jared Butler’s quick response cross his vision, then trying to get away with putting the ball down to dribble while three feet off the ground. That’s against the rules.
It looks like All-American center Drew Timme forced into a guarded turnaround jumper from 14 feet because his teammates neglected the shot clock and left him stranded with no recourse but to fire a shot that had little chance.
It looks like coach Mark Few’s scramble out of a switching man-to-man defense the Bears had been shredding and attempting a 2-3 zone, then later a 1-3-1, and Baylor finding the flaws in whatever scheme the Zags attempted.
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It looks like Baylor coach Scott Drew pointing to his bench to summon the deep reserves, the walk-ons, permitting them a ceremonial last minute so they can tell their children, grandchildren, nieces and nephews they finished the game for the winning side in an NCAA championship game.
And it looks like Gonzaga one-and-done freshman Jalen Suggs departing the floor in tears, just two days after he’d stood on the scorer’s table as the buzzer-beating king of the Final Four.
If this were not to end successfully, it was unlikely to end beautifully.
Gonzaga’s drive for a perfect championship season ended with neither Monday night at Lucas Oil Stadium. After 31 consecutive victories came the “1” the program’s fans had been fearing. The opportunity to become the first undefeated NCAA Tournament winner since 1976 disappeared rapidly against a Baylor surge that Few hailed as “aggressive” — or some derivation of that word — a total of seven times in his 15-minute discussion with reporters afterward.
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This was Gonzaga’s second appearance since 2017 in the NCAA championship game, and the second time in which it exited in defeat, but the first in which it had entered without a loss.
“It’s obviously a feeling these guys had never had to address and deal with,” Few told Sporting News.” But I think the nature of it tonight probably made it — I mean, it’s not easy but, again, as a coach you just try to give them as much perspective as you can. And as is usually the case with everything, time will lend them the best perspective.
“But they’ve just been an amazing, unbelievable group. And I just told them they’re just so easy to coach and so easy to travel with and so easy to deal with all this COVID stuff that we dealt with all year. I just was amazed at how they handled everything.”
The Zags did not lose because they play in the West Coast Conference and face lesser competition than the Bears through January and February. They did not lose because they wore themselves out playing late into Saturday night, their overtime semifinal against UCLA ending on star freshman Suggs’ 37-foot bank shot. They did not lose because they were carrying a greater burden as the team chasing an undefeated season.
“I never felt like we played with that weight all year,” Few said. “I always felt like we were the aggressor and we were always — I call it attack mode. And we just ran into a team tonight that was, they were the aggressor, clearly. So I think that put us back definitely on our heels on both ends.
“And, look, I’ve been watching them all year and watching last year and I knew they were going to be a handful for us. Just those guards are so quick and they can all get to their own shot. They’re obviously more athletic than we are up around the rim. But I thought we might be able to find some advantages, too, and we just weren’t quite able to do that.”
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They lost because Baylor is excellent: big, powerful, deep and outrageously skilled. The Bears’ backcourt trio of Davion Mitchell, Jared Butler and MaCio Teague combined to hit 7 of 16 from 3-point range, and reserve Adam Flagler hit 3 of 4.
They lost because the Zags were not excellent on this evening, in stark contrast to what they had been so many times before.
The 2017 loss to North Carolina went down to the final minute before the Tar Heels seized the game. It was closer to the first minute when this one was decided. The Zags were beaten early and often by Baylor’s dynamite guards and rugged big men. They were beaten inside and out, at the offensive end and on D. They were beaten on the boards (38-22) and on the perimeter (14 turnovers, too many of them resulting from dribbling the ball in the vicinity of multiple defenders).
Baylor informed the Zags early that its preference for a four-guard lineup was going to be problematic. The Bears grabbed five of the first eight rebounds that came off their offensive board. By halftime, they owned nine offensive rebounds, a 47.3 percent rate, and that improved to 48.5 percent by the end. The best offensive rebounding team in college basketball this season, North Carolina, averaged 40.9.
Perhaps even a greater issue was Gonzaga’s decision to switch at all five positions, often leaving Timme matched on a guard, often Butler, Mitchell or Teague. Those three combined for 31 of Baylor’s 47 first half points.
Whatever defense they were playing, and however ineffective it was, there was no way the Zags were going to win without hitting some 3-point shots. And they missed six of their first seven and finished 5 of 17. Kispert, an All-American, showed off his ability to play above the rim at both ends, again, but he continued a mild (but horribly timed) shooting slump by hitting just 2 of 7 from deep, bringing his three-game Lucas Oil Stadium total to 7 of 25. That’s 28 percent. He entered the Elite Eight shooting .461 from deep.
“Especially in this kind of a place, in this environment — the more aggressive team gets more calls. The more aggressive team makes more 3s,” Kispert said. “The more aggressive team gets more rebounds. And they punched us in the mouth right at the get-go. And it took a long, long time for us to recover and start playing them even again. But then it was too late.”
It did not end pretty the last time an undefeated team came this close to winning the championship, when Larry Bird and Indiana State got to the title game and found his team, as well, physically overmatched in the frontcourt.
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“It’s a really, really tough one to end a storybook season on,” Few said. “But listen, Baylor just beat us. They beat us in every facet of the game tonight and deserve all the credit. And obviously we’re all disappointed in here, but, you know, as I told the guys, like, you make it this far and you’re 31-0 going into the last one, the last 40 minutes of the season, there’s absolutely nothing you should ever feel bad about. And they’ll look back on this season as time passes as something just amazing and incredible.”
The Zags entered this weekend as though approaching an intersection. We aren’t much for those around Indy. We prefer left turns and roundabouts, but approaching this sort of either/or was inevitable for a team arriving at the Final Four with a perfect record. There were two directions, and picking one was mandatory.
On one side were the seven teams that completed an entire college basketball season without defeat and with an NCAA championship. Some of us can list them all without looking it up: 1956 San Francisco, 1957 North Carolina, 1964 UCLA, 1967 UCLA, 1972 UCLA, 1973 UCLA and 1976 Indiana. The NCAA Tournament first was played in 1939, and only that elite group was able to complete the entire journey to perfection.
On the opposite side were the teams, an imprecise collection, who came so close to finishing undefeated but could not. There were those that got deep into the season before stumbling at least once, and then approached the title without grabbing it: UMass 1996, Illinois 2005, Memphis 2008. There were those that made it all the way to the Final Four before seeing their mark spoiled: UNLV 1991 and Kentucky 2015, most prominently. There even were Bird’s 1979 Sycamores, who fell in the national championship game to Michigan State and Magic Johnson.
Every team in either group is legendary. So it wasn’t about whether Gonzaga would be able to seize greatness. That already had been achieved. It was about completing the job. This did not happen.
“You kind of forget. You really do forget what it’s like to lose,” Kispert told Sporting News. “And every time it happens, it doesn’t feel good. And thankfully I’ve had not very many of them over my career, whether it’s in the regular season or in the tournament.
“But I mean, when you come up against a team like that who is just firing on all cylinders for 40 minutes, it’s really hard to compete with. So, yeah, you kind of forget and it doesn’t feel good. I’m going to remember this for a long time.”