INDIANAPOLIS – Street preachers occupied busy blocks of downtown Indianapolis, scalpers hustled the corners. And Baylor’s green- and yellow-clad fans outnumbered Gonzaga’s by a noticeable margin at bars, restaurants and vendor booths on Monday, but the Bulldogs brought a sizable and spirited contingent inside cavernous Lucas Oil Stadium.
Many wore masks among beer-drinking throngs in the lawfully open-container Hoosier State. Many didn’t.
Some areas of the city felt like the country was still in the clutches of a pandemic. Others didn’t.
The mixed bag that is Indianapolis is a cocktail of hip Midwest metro and rural flyover state with a touch of the South, as Louisville, Kentucky, is roughly 100 miles down the interstate.
The hoops-rich city has a rare aesthetic, but not as rare as the tournament it hosted and its conclusion.
In an NCAA Tournament setting dubbed “Bubbleville” – all 64 tournament first-round qualifiers played in the Indiana’s capital as a preventive coronavirus measure – a team without a previous national title finally won on Monday night.
It just wasn’t the Jesuit school from Spokane.
It was the Baptist school from Waco, Texas.
Second-ranked Baylor was too much for top-ranked Gonzaga, handling the Bulldogs for an 86-70 win to prevent the West Coast Conference member from becoming the first undefeated Division I men’s basketball team since – coincidentally – nearby Indiana University in 1976.
Baylor, a team that hadn’t reached the Final Four since 1950, had little trouble with an NBA-loaded Gonzaga team widely expected to win its first national title.
Gonzaga shot an atypical 29% from 3-point range, was outrebounded by 16 and committed 14 turnovers, one of the Bulldogs’ worst outputs in recent history.
The Bulldogs were dominated in a game most pundits picked them to win.
This happened in front of a strange crowd, too. In a massive venue that can hold 70,000, coronavirus restrictions led to 22% of the seats filled.
Lively of chants of “BU” sounded much like “GU.”
“It was such a great season, though, but that ending was tough,” said longtime Gonzaga fan Geoff Stookey.
The Bulldogs, a college hoops Cinderella that pivoted into a legitimate national power after appearing in two national title games since 2017, still has a glaring hole on its unlikely and impressive resume.
But considering Gonzaga had its shot of winning a national title ripped away from it in 2020 because of the coronavirus, the Bulldogs at least got a chance to show it was once again among college’s basketball’s elite.
It came at a price, though, as Gonzaga bulldozed its opponents in the regular season without fans in the stands.
Players, coaches and personnel were in a team bubble for months to prevent a potential season-derailing infection.
The team spent most of its time in a hotel or on a basketball court in its three weeks in Indianapolis without the embrace of friends or family members in the triumph of five tournament wins and the pain of losing in the championship.
Fans who made the 2,000-mile trip to Indianapolis appeared dejected as they walked out of Lucas Oil Stadium and green confetti rained on a victorious Baylor team behind them.
Harry Sladich, an executive vice president of Red Lion Hotels and a longtime Zags fan, spent nearly two weeks in Indianapolis to watch the Bulldogs cut down the nets.
“I was bummed when they lost, didn’t want to talk to anyone for a bit,” Sladich said. “We know they are capable of being national champions. They didn’t get here by accident.
“They fought through unusually tough circumstances all year and prevailed.”
But Baylor got out to a great start and never slowed.
Eric Edelstein, a Gonzaga alum and Hollywood actor who made the trek to Indiana, expects the Bulldogs to be back in 2022 in New Orleans.
The 1999 graduate kept things in perspective.
“Think about if anyone told you 25 years ago that Gonzaga would go undefeated then lose in the championship game,” Edelstein said. “It’s unfathomable and unprecedented what Mark Few and Mike Roth have done.”
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