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John Blanchette: Jalen Suggs hand-delivers every college hoops fan’s dream showdown – Gonzaga and Baylor for the title

By John Blanchette For The Spokesman-Review

INDIANAPOLIS – Sometimes we get what we deserve.

The last slice of pie in the fridge after we could have sworn we’d pigged it down the night before. Hitting every green light on the way home from work. A bounce out of the sand and into the fairway. The love of a dog.

And Gonzaga-UCLA.

Oh, Gonzaga-Baylor? We get that, too. For the national championship on Monday night.

Hand-delivered by Jalen Suggs.

Forty feet away. Off the glass. Through the net. Zeroes on the clock. Three points.

Gonzaga 93, UCLA 90, overtime. Pass the defibrillator paddles. Pass the oxygen.

Sometimes we get what we deserve, and a little more.

“I was staring right at it,” Gonzaga coach Mark Few said, “and I said, ‘That’s in.’ And it was.”

And then came a world-record triple jump to atop the courtside TV table, where Suggs pounded his chest and pumped his fist at Gonzaga’s stunned and relieved rooting section until he was overcome by the moment.

So when does the statue go up?

Check that. Statues.

For Suggs and the biggest shot in program history. For his blocked shot and brazen bounce pass to Drew Timme for a dunk. For the charge Timme drew on the ridiculous Johnny Juzang to save the Zags in regulation. For Andrew Nembhard’s shake-and-step-back 3-pointer in overtime. For Joel Ayayi rescuing his guys time and again.

Heck, throw in a statue for the UCLA Bruins – 11 seeds, scrappers from all the way back to the First Four, coming up with a near-perfect game against the only unbeaten team in college basketball this season.

You Gonzaga “old-timers” – remember the overtime loss to Arizona in the 2003 NCAAs? This was that only with joy at the end.

And laughter.

When Suggs arrived for his postgame interview, he plopped into the chair, laughed, threw his head back in disbelief and laughed again.

“So I’ve always said a football game – section championship against Benilde-St. Margaret’s my senior year – was my greatest sports moment I’ve been a part of,” said Suggs, the one-time high school quarterback. “It skyrockets above that. I mean, it was nuts. And I still can’t speak. I have so many things going on in my head. I just can’t believe that happened.”

You and America, Jalen.

But the truth is, no one could have imagined the game coming down to such a miracle.

The Zags have been – or had been – nearly rubber-stamped to win it all, having administered double-digit beatings to all but one opponent this year and looking especially crisp this tournament. They were 13½-point favorites over the Bruins, and figured to want to stage an encore to the beating Baylor handed Houston in the earlier semifinal.

And here’s the thing: Gonzaga didn’t play poorly. Struggled to get stops, yes. Didn’t rebound well. Slightly subpar from 3.

But UCLA was A-plus-plus-plus.

And devastated.

“I just told them they’ve got to let the last shot go,” UCLA coach Mick Cronin said. “And as much as they want to be beat down right now and gutted and miserable, they’ve got to let it go because they’re winners. They won.”

Indeed, all those Gonzaga plays cited earlier – from Suggs’ block to Timme’s drawn charge to Nembhard’s 3 – were relegated to footnotes not because of Suggs’ winner, but because the Bruins battled back to make each of them inconsequential in the final tally.

Yet for all the Bruins’ toughness, Gonzaga matched it – this from the team that was supposed to wilt because it hadn’t been tested.

Here’s what Few told his team before overtime.

“We’re fine,” he said. “We’re going to win this thing. No doubt we’re going to win it. We’ve been making the right basketball play all year.”

Of course, he wasn’t even thinking the most righteous play of all was going to be a 40-foot bank at the buzzer.

“I don’t know that he really believed it was going in,” Suggs said of his coach. “Because I didn’t. But I appreciate it.”

The 2021 NCAA Tournament just saw its best game, no matter what happens Monday night. It won’t be anti-climactic – it’s the two best teams in college basketball, just as we thought all season. It just … won’t be as good. It simply can’t be, can it?

Which doesn’t mean the Zags aren’t relishing it.

“I can’t wait to get there,” Suggs said. “I’m extremely excited. It’s something we’ve put as an accomplishment we want to get to (from) the beginning of the year. And to be here, it just shows all the hard work and effort we put in all season long.

“When dreams start to become realities and you’re able to experience those things, it’s special. 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.”

Sometimes we get what we deserve.

But on Monday night, the Zags have to go and get it.