We will never know if it was destiny for the Gonzaga Bulldogs (31-1, 15-0) and the Baylor Bears (28-2, 13-1) to match up with one another Monday night in a game that would decide the 2020-21 NCAA national championship. But after the Dec. 5 contest earlier this season between college basketball's top two school was cancelled, it seemed almost serendipitous for these two teams to reconvene in Indianapolis at the end of the season.
However, destiny rarely ever goes the way that people perceive it to, and on Monday, BU slighted GU of its potentially perfect season in an 86-70 win to hand the Bears their first national title in program history.
BU entered the championship on a five-game tournament run during which the Bears have beaten the likes of Arkansas, Villanova and Wisconsin by an average of 15 points per game. Most recently heading into Monday, it was the Houston Cougars who the Bears got the advantage over in a 78-59 Final Four win, with BU guard Jared Butler dropping 17 points and securing five rebounds to bring his team to the national title game.
GU handily won its first four games of the tournament by an average score of 24 points. Then in the national semifinal game against UCLA, the Bruins forced an overtime thriller that saw freshman guard Jalen Suggs hit a deep buzzer beater 3-pointer to keep perfection intact for the Zags with a 93-90 win.
“It’s a tough turnaround, but just the aggressiveness and the athleticism of Baylor had us on our heels today, I don’t know if [the loss] was due to our fatigue,” GU head coach Mark Few said. “Usually when you’re the more aggressive team then you’re going to get the calls and you’re going to make the plays, and clearly, they were way more aggressive than us the entire night.”
The Bears jumped out to a quick 9-0 lead after pulling out three offensive rebounds in the opening minute, and Butler established himself early after converting on two put-back layups and then nailing a 3-pointer with 14:28 left to make it 16-4 with BU in the lead. As the nation’s top 3-point shooting team all season, BU started out shooting a perfect 5-for-5 from deep, with a second chance 3 from sophomore guard Adam Flagler giving the Bears a 21-6 lead which at the time was the most points GU had been down by in a game all season.
That basket came off a turnover, one of five given up by the Zags in the first eight minutes before BU gave up its first. Up until that point, GU forward Drew Timme only had two points on two touches, but in the remaining 10 minutes of the first half, he would get himself going down low by adding eight more.
Still, rebounding would remain difficult for him and the rest of the Zags to get a handle on, as the Bears managed nine offensive rebounds in the first half to go along with forcing eight turnovers. Off of those extra possessions, the Bears managed to get 16 more shots up than the Zags in the first 20 minutes.
GU switched to zone in the last 10 minutes of the first half to thwart BU’s effective screen and role, and GU was able to turn those defensive stops into offensive production through aggressive cutting lanes. After finding themselves down by 19 at one point, the Zags clawed their way back within 12 points with 3:31 left to play after Joel Ayayi was able to get out in transition for a slam.
BU once again found success on offense after exposing a zone gap at the elbow that yielded two consecutive scores from junior guard Macio Teague, who ended the night with 19 points on 8-for-15 shooting, and BU repossessed a 45-28 lead. With clock running down in the first half however, GU forced a shot clock violation on BU’s last possession and then brought the ball back up the court with eight seconds left to feed senior guard Corey Kispert for an inside score, which would cap off the first 20 minutes having GU down 37-47.
BU cracked the Zags’ zone scheme from the start of the second half, with Butler kicking things off with back-to-back 3-pointers and then guard Davion Mitchell getting an open midrange look to give BU eight quick points. Butler ended up with 22 points and seven assists while Mitchell finished with 15 points and six rebounds.
Meanwhile, GU missed its first two 3-point attempts of the second half, part of a 5-for-17 shooting night overall from range for the Zags.
“They literally busted us out of anything we could do on offense and we weren’t playing facing up, and we couldn’t get anything generated going to the basket, kind of playing sideways,” Few said. “Then on the other end, we had no answers as far as keeping some of their guards in front and made a couple of mistakes we talked about not doing as far as not letting them get catch-and-shoot 3s or shakedown 3s.”
A hard take from Nembhard going toward the basket fell in with 14:25 to help GU lower the deficit to nine points. The Bears’ offense found life again shortly after, as a blocked shot attempt of Kispert’s at the rim started a BU scoring drive which would balloon their advantage back to 20 points with 10:39 left to play.
Kispert struggled with 12 points on the game from 5-12 shooting and Timme was getting little opportunity to make plays down low. So Suggs, the freshman guard, had 15 points in the second half after putting up seven in the first, including a three with nine minutes left to play that gave GU some life.
“[Jalen] is a winner, and he lost for the first time in college basketball,” Few said. “He’s highly competitive and doesn’t like losing and I think in his mind, he saw us cutting down the nets at the end of this, but he’s also young and as time goes by, he’ll gain better perspective on what an incredible impact he had on this team and heck, on college basketball.”
Unfortunately for the Zags, BU kept up the intense offensive pressure while conceding very little ground on defense. Although GU outperformed BU’s scoring efforts down low 40-30 for the game, it was ultimately the Bears tenacity in almost every other respect of the game that helped see them through to a 16-point victory which crowned them as national champions.
Despite falling 40 minutes short of accomplishing the first undefeated NCAA men’s basketball season in 45 years, the loss Monday takes nothing away from how much this GU team has accomplished since November of last year.
“In life and in basketball, joy doesn’t come without a little bit of suffering — you can’t have one and not the other and it’s about dealing with those grave moments in your life and finding joy in those,” Kispert said. “That’s where real happiness comes from, and I’m so thankful for the way that this team handled adversity and suffering all year long and I’m definitely a better person because of it.”
Destiny may not have favored the Zags in the season’s final game, but if it weren’t for destiny, then GU, Spokane and the world would’ve never seen such a special 2020-21 Zags team that gave everyone something to cheer for this March.