INDIANAPOLIS – What is the flip side of perfection?
(OK, yes, the way the Gonzaga Bulldogs played in the game of their lives Monday night. Flip questions beg for flip answers.)
But back to perfection, which for the Zags was going to be 32-0, and becoming the first unbeaten NCAA basketball champions in 45 years – and maybe an answer on “Jeopardy” sometime in the future.
So the flip side is … 0-32?
Nope. It’s 31-1.
Nothing would have felt so good for Gonzaga as finishing off a season for the ages with a national championship. Nothing feels so empty in the moment as having that destiny so bad-assedly ripped away the way it was Monday night by the Baylor Bears – the best team in college basketball, with an exclamation point.
They put their claws to Gonzaga 86-70 – turning the slickest and most entertaining offense in college basketball into a confused and frantic mess, leaving the Zags spattered on the glass like highway bugs and throwing in a 3-pointer whenever they even so much as sniffed trouble.
That was punctuated with Jalen Suggs standing on the courtside television table, fists pumping at Gonzaga’s fans, the mission rescued.
On Monday, it was all the Baylor players atop the same table, giving it back to their peeps, having undone those unbeaten dreams – while Suggs and his teammates buried their heads in one another’s shoulders.
“You really do forget,” said Gonzaga senior Corey Kispert, “what it’s like to lose.”
Lose? Or get beat? Or a cocktail of both?
The Bears – No. 1B to Gonzaga’s 1A virtually all season – arrived at tipoff with an uncommon ferocity, burying the Bulldogs in an 11-1 flurry, the most significant part of which was four offensive rebounds that illustrated their superior will.
And then it got worse, including six Gonzaga turnovers that helped the Bears’ lead grow to 19 points in the first 10 minutes.
Gonzaga coach Mark Few had called the Bears “handsy” – but he didn’t say they had four on each arm.
“They’re just not letting you do the things you normally do,” said Kispert. “I’m so used to kind of, if that happens, we take that punch and move on … and just fight back, really go out quicker than we did.”
But, in fact, any return punches were glancing blows. Gonzaga had a nice finish to the first half, and another brief surge to close the gap to nine points – and no less. Whatever advantage the Zags were supposed to have inside was short-circuited by Drew Timme getting just seven shots. Kispert’s late-tournament struggles from 3 continued. Only Suggs had any real success against Baylor’s extraordinary guards.
“They were just so much more aggressive,” said Few, which led to the Zags doing “stuff we didn’t do all year. That took a bad situation and made it even worse.”
And it was no accident. Baylor wins a best-of-seven series. Maybe in six.
If this wasn’t suspected, it’s because the scheduled regular-season meeting of these two teams back on Dec. 5 was scotched when a positive COVID-19 test forced the Zags to cancel. A redo couldn’t be arranged. And when the Bears’ own COVID pause took the steam out of their season in February, some of their impressive defensive numbers took a misleading hit.
Meanwhile, the Zags’ phenomenal season had resumed, and rolled on. And now they search for the proper light in which to view it.
That will be tougher on a one-and-done talent like Suggs than the more veteran Bulldogs. His despair when Few removed the starters with a minute to go was open and raw.
“He’s a winner and he lost for the first time in college basketball,” Few said. “He doesn’t like losing. And I think in his mind he saw us cutting down the nets at the end of this.”
Even on the morning of the championship game, the Bulldogs were being weighed as possibly one of the greatest college teams of all time – poised to become the eighth undefeated national champion of all time.
Instead, they’re the first team to lose an undefeated season in the championship game since Larry Bird and Indiana State in 1979.
Not the greatest, but simply great. It shouldn’t be a pejorative.
“We’re all disappointed here,” Few acknowledged, “but as I told the guys, 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).”
But they will, perspective or not.
“It doesn’t feel good,” Kispert said. “I’ll remember this for a long time.”
The flip side of perfection.
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