Zags’ dramatic finish locks in Gonzaga-Baylor national title game

Sports

Gonzaga guard Jalen Suggs (1) celebrates making the game winning basket against UCLA during overtime in a men’s Final Four NCAA college basketball tournament semifinal game, Saturday, April 3, 2021, at Lucas Oil Stadium in Indianapolis. Gonzaga won 93-90. (AP Photo/Michael Conroy)

Gonzaga 93, UCLA 90

INDIANAPOLIS (AP) – The shot by Jalen Suggs — perfect!

The Gonzaga freshman banked in a shot at the buzzer from near the half-court logo Saturday night to lift the Zags to a 93-90 overtime win over UCLA and move them one win away from an undefeated season and a national title.

This Final Four thriller was the best game of the tournament, and, considering the stakes, it served up possibly the best finish in the history of March Madness — a banker from near midcourt to keep a perfect season alive.

What should come as no surprise from a team this good: It’s a shot the Zags practice all the time.

“Every day in shootaround before the game we shoot half-courters,” Suggs said. “I haven’t been making my half-courters, but I got it with confidence, put it up. It’s crazy. I can’t come to words right now.”

After the shot went in, Suggs ran to the mostly empty press row, jumped up on the table, pumped his fists and let out a huge yell to the crowd of 8,000-or-so socially distanced fans. The refs checked to make sure he got the shot off before the buzzer sounded. He did, and the Bulldogs moved into Monday night’s final, where they’ll play Baylor for the title.

They are the first team to bring an undefeated record into the championship game since Larry Bird and Indiana State in 1979.

Even without Suggs’ shot, it would’ve been hard to beat this game for pure excitement.

With it, was it the greatest game ever?

“I’d say no because we didn’t win,” UCLA coach Mick Cronin said.

Still, it featured 15 ties and 19 lead changes and an 11th-seeded UCLA team that simply wouldn’t give in. Even though they lost, the Bruins snapped a streak of 27 straight double-digit wins by Mark Few’s juggernaut.

UCLA (22-10) was the first team to lead Gonzaga in the second half over five games of tournament play and, in fact, had a chance to win at the end of regulation.

With the game tied at 81, Johnny Juzang was taking it hard to the hoop in the final seconds, when Zags forward Drew Timme, playing with four fouls, stepped into the paint, planted his feet and took a charge.

Gonzaga called time and tried a Grant Hill-to-Christian Laettner full-court pass with 1.1 seconds left to try to win in regulation. It didn’t connect. Five minutes later, Suggs may have very possibly knocked Laettner’s shot down a spot on the list of all-timers.

“We made a lucky one at the end, but I’m just telling you he makes those ones all the time in practice,” Few said. “He’s just got this magical aura about him. I knew when he shot it it was going in.”

Before that, Suggs’ best play might have been his rejection of Cody Riley (14 points, 10 rebounds), who looked to be going in unhindered for a dunk that would have put UCLA up by two at the 2-minute mark. Suggs got the block, then fed Timme for a dunk that instead gave the Zags the slight advantage.

UCLA deserved better than this.

The Bruins went toe-to-toe all night with the top-ranked team in the country. This was their third overtime out of six games in the tournament — they played an extra one in the First Four — and they never trailed by more than seven. They got everything they could have dreamed of on a magical night of college hoops. Everything but the win.

The Bruins stay “stuck” on their nation-leading 11 titles, most of them won back in the John Wooden days.

“I just told them, ‘We’ve got to let that shot go,’” Cronin said. “We won. I sit in coach Wooden’s seat. When you sit in his seat, you have to channel the things that he taught. True greatness is giving your best effort.”

Who would dare say they didn’t?

Juzang had 29 points for the Bruins, including a 15-footer with 1:27 left in regulation that helped them claw back from seven down to tie it at 79.

Jamie Jaquez Jr. was also unintimidated by Gonzaga. He handled Timme’s inside pressure all night, scoring 19 points. Jaquez’s two free throws tied it at 81 with 43 seconds left.

It looked like it would be Timme’s overtime. He dipped and ducked for Gonzaga’s first six points of the extra session and an 87-83 lead that felt like breathing room in this one.

But Cronin called a timeout and UCLA chipped away again.

Juzang’s putback with 3.3 seconds left tied it at 90. Few didn’t call timeout, and Suggs took the inbound pass and had clear sailing to the half-court line — and into the all-time highlight package.


Baylor 78, Houston 59

INDIANAPOLIS (AP) — Nearly two decades ago, Scott Drew decided to leave his comfort zone at tiny Valparaiso for the scandal-plagued basketball program at Baylor, explaining to his father that there was nowhere for the Bears to go but up.

Now, they’re one win away from the top.

Led by Jared Butler and the rest of their brilliant backcourt, a defense that refused to give Houston an inch and a coach intent on making the most of his first trip to the Final Four, the Bears roared to a 78-59 victory Saturday night in their first appearance in the NCAA Tournament semifinals in 71 long years.

“Every day you’re grinding, and you don’t really look back. You’re pressing forward,” Drew said, “but I’m so blessed to have these unbelievable players that bought into what we like to do with the program.”

Or, as Butler put it: “This is what we came to Baylor to do.”

Butler scored all 17 of his points in the first half, but just about everyone from Baylor (27-2) got into the act, with five players scoring in double figures. They built a 45-20 lead by halftime and coasted the rest of the way in the first Final Four showdown between schools from the Lone Star State.

Next up for the Bears is Gonzaga, the overall No. 1 seed, which beat UCLA 93-90 when Jalen Suggs banked in a buzzer-beater in overtime. Monday night’s championship is a matchup that was supposed to take place in December, but that game was called off hours before tipoff due to a COVID-19 outbreak within the Bulldogs program.

“They got pros, we got pros. They win a lot of games, we win a lot of games,” Butler said. “I think we match up pretty well.”

Better than Houston did with them.

Marcus Sasser had 20 points and Quentin Grimes 13 for the cold-shooting Cougars (28-4), whose dream path to their first Final Four since 1984 — they faced teams seeded 15th, 10th, 11th and 12th along the way — ended with a whimper against a team that spent most of the season ranked No. 2 in the nation behind Gonzaga.

“We had a great run,” Sasser said as he choked back tears. “Just fell short this year.”

Butler said this week that Baylor had been focused squarely on the Final Four since the moment last year’s tournament was canceled by the pandemic. And for Drew, the wait goes back even longer.

He took over a program 18 years ago embroiled in arguably the biggest controversy in college basketball history: the graphic shooting death of player Patrick Dennehy, his teammate Devon Dotson pleading guilty to his murder, attempts by then-coach Dave Bliss to cover it all up and NCAA sanctions that lasted well into Drew’s own tenure.

Yet somehow, the son of longtime Valpo coach Homer Drew could always picture the very scene that unfolded Saturday night: His team playing selflessly, almost effortlessly, never once feeling the pressure of college basketball’s biggest stage, then celebrating their success at midcourt when the final buzzer sounded.

Well, there were a couple things Drew probably didn’t picture.

Instead of 70,000 fans reaching to the rafters, the Bears were cheered in the lower bowl by thousands of cardboard cutouts — the late Georgetown coach John Thompson, New Mexico State mascot Pistol Pete and everyone in between — due to COVID-19 measures that have forced them to live in a bubble for the last three weeks.

The roughly 8,000 fans that were allowed through the doors, socially distanced in a vast ocean of blue seats, provided a muted soundtrack to the blowout taking place inside the cavernous home of the Indianapolis Colts.

“This was probably the toughest year for any of us,” Houston coach Kelvin Sampson said, “and not just the bubble here but COVID challenges, isolation, being quarantined, social distancing, masks — this was quite a year. But you know, the sting of this will leave them. Days will turn into weeks, weeks into months, and what they’ll remember is the memories.”

At least, all those leading up to Saturday night.

The Bears controlled the game from the jump, unleashing an early 14-3 run fueled by the crisp passing, silky shooting and dastardly defense that made them unbeatable before a 23-day COVID-19 pause late in the regular season.

When the Cougars finally scored, the Bears ripped off another 16-3 run later in the first half, carving up the nation’s top 3-point field-goal defense with ruthless efficiency. By the time Davion Mitchell knocked down back-to-back 3-pointers to end the first half, the Bears had a 45-20 lead that felt insurmountable.

“I don’t think I’ve seen a team with five guards at that level, no drop-off,” Sampson said, “and they were good at both ends of the floor.”

Sasser did everything he could to keep Houston alive, hitting five 3-pointers and scoring 17 himself. But the rest of the Cougars were 1 of 15 from the field, including their All-American guard Grimes (0 for 5) and DeJon Jarreau (1 for 7), who earned MVP honors in the Midwest Region.

Sampson, whose reputation for being a master tactician was stretched to the limit, tried to get the guard-heavy Cougars to go to the basket more in the second half. But nothing seemed to work.

“We came out of the locker room and competed,” Sampson said with a shake of his head, “but Baylor is the best team we’ve played. They may be the best team we’ve played in the seven years I’ve been here.”

Meanwhile, the big cushion down the stretch gave the Bears — mullet-haired Matthew Mayer, MaCio Teague and Jonathan Tchamwa Tchatchoua in their bright pink sneakers, Butler and Mitchell and the rest of their guys lounging on the bench — plenty of time to celebrate the program’s second trip to the national title game.

“It hasn’t sunk in yet, to be honest with you,” Butler said. “I think it’ll sink in later in life, or two months from now, and I’ll think, ‘Wow, we were in the national title game.’ Or next year when I watch it, I’ll think, ‘Wow, we were there.’”

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