INDIANAPOLIS – After navigating its toughest test of the season – a heart-pounding 93-90 win Saturday over UCLA in one of the most dramatic finishes in NCAA Tournament history – Gonzaga resumes chasing one last giant piece of history.
The Bulldogs are one victory from completing an undefeated season with the program’s first national championship. In other words, legendary status in the sport that only seven teams have achieved since the first tournament in 1939, the most recent Indiana’s 32-0 season in 1976.
Wait, it gets better.
Standing in their way is No. 1 seed Baylor, which spent most of the season a notch below Gonzaga in the rankings but every bit in the national championship conversation.
“Look, if we were going to win this thing, we were probably going to at some point have to play them because I always thought we were the two best teams,” Zags coach Mark Few said.
The teams were scheduled to meet Dec. 5 in Indianapolis, but it was called off about 90 minutes prior to tip-off due to COVID-19 issues in GU’s program.
“Coach Few and I when we were together on Dec. 5th when the game got canceled and we said, ‘How neat would it be to play this game on April 5th,’ ” Baylor coach Scott Drew said.
And here they are, lining up for a highly anticipated championship game Monday at Lucas Oil Stadium.
The sports world is still buzzing over Jalen Suggs’ buzzer-beater against UCLA, but the Zags have turned the page to the Bears, who were ranked third in the final AP poll. Baylor (27-2) routed second-seeded Houston 78-59 behind a familiar formula of strong guard play and 3-point accuracy.
“They’re complete,” Few said of the backcourt of Jared Butler, Davion Mitchell, MaCio Teague and Adam Flagler. “They guard their yard defensively, very handsy, they make the right reads in ball screen and off penetration.
“I hope or think maybe it’s a little like preparing for my guards because they present the same kind of issues.”
The foursome represents Baylor’s top four scorers. Make it top five if one includes Matthew Mayer, a 6-foot-9 junior who is listed as a guard/forward. Mayer and Flagler came off the bench and combined for three 3s and 19 points against the Cougars.
Gonzaga’s X-factor could be Drew Timme. The sophomore forward scored 25 points Saturday, becoming the first player in program history with four consecutive 20-point performances in the tournament.
He’s averaging 22 points per game, hitting 64.2% of his shots and 80% at the free-throw line while contributing 6.8 rebounds and 3.8 assists.
The Bears get roughly 73% of their scoring from the backcourt. Mark Vital, Flo Thamba and Jonathan Tchamwa Tchatchoua combine for about 16 points per game but are key contributors with blocks, defense and rebounding.
“No one’s done it,” Drew said of slowing Gonzaga’s offense. “It’s the best offense in college basketball in I don’t know how many years analytically. They’re No. 1, we’re No. 2. Both of us are top defenses in the country. Prior to the pause we were No. 3. So I think you have elite on elite. Players are going to make plays, we just want to make things as difficult as possible for them.”
Baylor was unbeaten before being sidelined for most of February by a three-week COVID pause. The Bears lost their sharpness, particularly on the defensive end, and eventually dropped two games.
They’ve recaptured their prepause level of play during the tournament, limiting four of five opponents to 63 points or less.
“We came back and played six games in 14 days,” said Drew, whose team won a regular-season conference title for the first time since 1950. “So we were just basically playing, recovering, prepping, but no practicing. Once we lost in the Big 12 Tournament we were able to practice for the first time where we really could get better.”
This contest feels like it’s been a long time in the making. A year ago, Gonzaga (31-2) and Baylor (26-4) were projected as top seeds, but the tournament was canceled due to the pandemic.
Both programs have been title threats for several years. On Monday night, one will walk away with the first national championship in program history.
“I felt like for them it’s a two-season journey kind of like us because last year they were also in a great position when everything got stopped,” Gonzaga junior guard Joel Ayayi said. “I think it’s the two most deserving teams in the past two years that are going to meet in the national championship game.”
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