A Gonzaga season that began with a bang seemingly a lifetime ago, ended Monday night with a whisper.
A whisper of history unfulfilled. Of the Zags’ undefeated promise ripped away suddenly and completely by a Baylor team that finally had its opportunity. An opportunity denied four months ago when the Bulldogs had to walk away from a nonconference showdown in the same city due to a COVID-19 issue.
There was no denying the Bears in the NCAA title game at Lucas Oil Stadium as they dominated the previously undefeated Zags from the opening tip in an 86-70 win.
Through it all, Jim Nantz and the rest of CBS’ announcing crew seemed as surprised as much of Spokane probably was.
What they saw …
• “Here we go fellas, here we go America,” Nantz said to analysts Grant Hill, Bill Raftery and, well, everyone watching, as the Gonzaga’s second championship opportunity began. “Let’s make a little history tonight in Indianapolis.”
As in a historically poor start for the Bulldogs, who came in 31-0 and were attempting to match Indiana’s perfect record from 1976?
Because that’s what happened.
In the stretch before the first media timeout, the Bears busted in front, in part because freshman Jalen Suggs, the focus of CBS’ pregame coverage, picked a bad time to start like, well, a freshman.
Before he went to the bench a little more than 3 minutes in, Suggs had taken an ill-advised 3-pointer, was called for an iffy charge and then picked up a second foul by grabbing an arm. By the time Mark Few rolled the dice and sent Suggs back with 11:42 before halftime, Gonzaga trailed 23-8.
It was over.
Hill, who has some pertinent experience, having played in a championship game for Duke two days after handing UNLV its first loss in 1991, thought he knew why.
“The Zags look a little flat right now,” he said as Baylor raced in front, playing at a speed the Bulldogs never could match.
Later, he added, “Gonzaga just looks fatigued, almost drained,” citing Saturday night’s semifinal overtime win over UCLA. “They don’t have the same energy we are accustomed to seeing on both ends of the floor.”
• The Zags trailed by as many as 19 in the first half, which Nantz redundantly kept saying, as the margin built, was their largest deficit of the season. Luckily, Hill and Raftery continually explained how GU could get back into it. Neither, however mentioned a zone defense.
Maybe it was because the Zags were getting killed on the glass – BU had nine first-half offensive rebounds and nine second-chance points – and from beyond the arc. The Bears were 7 of 12 from there before intermission. They finished with 16 offensive rebounds, 16 second-chance points and shot 43.5% from long range.
The positive part of the change, made with 6:40 left in the first half, helped the Bulldogs go on a 10-3 run – something Nantz incorrectly identified as, at one point, “eight unanswered.” More than anything, though, the zone slowed Baylor’s momentum, which Gonzaga tried to grab before halftime.
When Anton Watson ended the first 20 minutes with a layup, at least Raftery thought the Zags had.
“Talk about a momentum (switch),” he said. “Getting to 10, ooh, that’s a relief.”
• It really wasn’t, because the Bulldogs couldn’t get stops.
“Boy, are they asleep defensively,” Raftery said after Baylor scored on a Tchamwa Tchatchoua dunk, building the lead back to 58-45 with 15:42 left.
“They look a step off,” Raftery added. But he had an explanation: The “tough kids” from Baylor.
They certainly were tougher in this one, disrupting Gonzaga’s record-setting offense with physical play, great rotations and quick hands that forced eight first-half turnovers and 14 overall. The Bears (28-2) had 16 more first-half shots and 18 more when it ended.
The defensive breakdowns continued and so did the Baylor roll. Gonzaga cut the lead to nine, but “with under 10 minutes to go, the perfect season is on life support,” Nantz said. At that point, the lead was back to 20.
“This Baylor team looks so fresh and energized,” Hill observed with about 5 minutes left and BU up 80-63, “like they could play another game.”
One was plenty.
What we saw …
• The broadcast began with “Mad Men” star Jon Hamm speaking from a Los Angeles sound stage.
His intro concerned everything from the history of the tournament to how the coronavirus has attacked the season just ended. Actually, though, he was emphasizing how it wasn’t about such things.
He listed those things and then changed gears.
“Unprecedented times? Yeah,” he said. “(But) tonight’s not about any of that. Tonight is about them. And the history they make.”
It was not the type of history Gonzaga wanted.
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