INDIANAPOLIS — It took 45 minutes, a key charge from Drew Timme, a block and beautiful pass from Jalen Suggs and an insane buzzer-beater courtesy of Suggs — Gonzaga’s most heralded freshman of all time — but we’ve finally got what we have wanted all season:
Baylor vs. Gonzaga for the national championship.
This matchup was originally scheduled for way back on Dec. 5, just down the road at Bankers Life Fieldhouse, but it never happened due to a Gonzaga player testing positive for COVID-19 just hours before tip. The game was then pegged as a battle between the top two teams in the country, and it remains the best two teams in the country now — although Johnny Juzang and the UCLA Bruins almost spoiled the heavyweight bout.
Juzang was sensational again for the Bruins, this time finishing with 29 points and putting back his own miss with a game-tying bucket with 3.3 seconds left in overtime.
But Suggs, who had provided some potential game-saving heroics late in regulation with a block on Cody Riley, and then a sensational bounce pass to Timme, got the ball, dribbled just over halfcourt and let it fly from 35 feet, banking in a game-winning 3-pointer as the buzzer sounded.
“It’s something you practice on your mini-hoop messing around,” Suggs said. “To be able to do it, it’s crazy.”
It didn’t just keep the Zags’ national title prayers alive, but also their hopes to become the first team to go unbeaten since the 1976 Indiana Hoosiers.
There were times when it appeared as though the No. 11 UCLA Bruins, this year’s Cinderella story, might pull off the ultimate upset and go from the First Four to the national championship game. Instead, Gonzaga — which hasn’t played in a ton of nail-biters this season en route to a 31-0 record — found a way.
It was a total team effort even though that was ultimately overshadowed by Suggs’ heroics. Joel Ayayi carried the Zags in the first half and went into the break with 16 points, while Timme was dominant early in the overtime period, despite playing with four fouls, and led Gonzaga with 25 points. Andrew Nembhard, who was all set to sit out this season until the NCAA gave everyone their year back, drilled a huge 3-pointer with a little more than a minute remaining in overtime and senior leader Corey Kispert added 15 points in a quiet night for one of the nation’s top shooters.
But for at least one moment, it looked as though Gonzaga’s aspirations of perfection, and the Zags’ matchup with Baylor, would be just that — a dream. Juzang took the ball to the basket with 1.1 seconds left and appeared to have drawn Timme’s fifth foul.
Instead, it was correctly called a charge and the fans were treated to five additional minutes of what was the most riveting game of the NCAA Tournament. It’s too bad that only 8,200 or so fans were in the building to see what was an all-time classic, but COVID-19 restrictions limited the number of fans in Lucas Oil Stadium. Gonzaga took a 90-85 lead in overtime, but Jaime Jaquez’s 3-pointer cut it to 90-88 with 50 seconds left and then Juzang appeared to have added five more minutes onto the clock with his putback.
But then Suggs, the Minnesota native who turned down half a million dollars from the NBA G League Ignite to play in Spokane, buried what could go down as the most important shot in program history and one of the greatest shots in NCAA Tournament history to give Gonzaga a 93-90 win.
“I saw Johnny got the miss and put it back in, and Corey took it out right away,” Suggs said about the play. “I was yelling, ‘Corey, Corey come here,’ and I got as many dribbles as I could. I tried to get as close as I could … I just put it up. I was fading away with it, and it went off the backboard and in.”
“He’s got that magical aura,” Mark Few added of Suggs. “He’s a hell of a player. I mean, he’s electric.”
Now Suggs, Kispert and Ayayi will get a chance to finally match up with Baylor’s perimeter trio of Jared Butler, Davion Mitchell and MaCio Teague on Monday night at Lucas Oil Stadium. We’ll finally get a chance to see if Baylor’s elite interior defender Mark Vital can slow down Timme. We’ll also get to see a pair of coaching buddies, Few and Baylor coach Scott Drew, match wits — with one of them claiming their school’s first-ever national title.
This enticing matchup is finally here, with absolutely everything now on the line and the entire country watching.
“I’m glad we didn’t play that [originally scheduled] game in a way,” Mitchell told me earlier this season. “Because it’ll be better if we face them in the national title game.”