Monday, May 20, 2024

Zags' quest for perfection runs out of gas

by STEVE CAMERON / Zags Tracker
| April 6, 2021 1:00 AM

History stumbled at the final step.


In fact, history looked exhausted, got hit in the mouth, never came back to the level such achievements have demanded, so …


Gonzaga’s bid for college basketball immortality was denied Monday night, as Baylor produced a magnificent effort to defeat the weary, emotionally drained Zags 86-70 – denying them both an unbeaten season and their first national championship.

The Zags were upended after 31 straight wins in this COVID-struck season, as the Big 12 champion Bears jumped to a 9-0 lead and never looked back.

They poured in 7 of 10 3-pointers in the first half alone, hammered the Zags with endless offensive rebounds and – except for one mini-rally near the end of the first half – turned what might have been a classic into a rout.

Baylor grabbed an incredible 16 offensive rebounds, almost matching the Zags’ total of 22 overall.

It was a massacre on the boards.

DID IT hurt?

Oh, yeah.

Star freshman Jalen Suggs left the floor in tears, having suffered his only loss as he prepares to leave Gonzaga for the NBA.

Suggs and his teammates thought they would be cutting down the nets.

“These guys have never had this experience,” coach Mark Few said, meaning that this team had not known the experience of defeat.

“It was a tough one to take.”

This was the Zags’ second loss in the NCAA title game in the past four tournaments.

That first defeat, to North Carolina in 2017, was a thriller decided in the final minute.

The Zags expected something similar Monday night, hoping to flip the ending, but it never came to that.

Not this time.

Sure, we all knew Baylor was a legit challenger, the only gang out there that could keep Gonzaga from truly making history.

As the Bears’ all-world guard Jared Butler put it: “They got pros. We got pros.”

On this night, Baylor’s pros were fresher and so much better in every phase of the game – and however much the Zags might have wished for a rematch, the NCAA doesn’t decide champions in a best-of-seven series.

THESE TWO teams had been ranked Nos. 1 and 2 in every poll for most of the season, and Baylor (28-2) only suffered two late-season losses after three weeks of inactivity due to positive tests for the virus.

Baylor hardly looked ill in this title showdown, jumping on the Zags instantly and turning the game upside-down.

Both Few and senior Corey Kispert – absorbing disappointment in his final game at Gonzaga – pointed to Baylor’s aggressiveness as the difference in how things played out.

Neither Few nor Kispert wanted to make any excuses, although Few did point out that it was a “tough turnaround” after battling through that overtime thriller against UCLA on Saturday night.

“Give credit to Baylor,” Few said. “They just outplayed us at both ends of the floor.

And on top of that …

“We did things I hardly saw all year – missed assignments on defense, balls thrown away, plus we missed some big throws when we had a little something going.”

MORE THAN anything, the Zags and their fans no doubt feel kind of a shock, seeing a team that had won 31 games unable even to give Baylor a fight.

Nobody expected a blowout.

“We just couldn’t get going,” Kispert said. “We couldn’t do any of the things we normally do.”

Was it some wear and tear from Saturday?

Was there a hangover that allowed Baylor to jump out to a 19-point lead.

“Honestly, I don’t know,” Kispert said, “but we weren’t really us. Against a team like Baylor, that’s going to make things difficult.”

More like impossible, really.

So, history got blitzed.


Steve Cameron’s “Cheap Seats” columns appear in The Press on Mondays, Wednesdays and Fridays. “Moments, Memories and Madness,” his reminiscences from several decades as a sports journalist, runs on Sunday. Steve also writes Zags Tracker, a commentary on Gonzaga basketball which will be published on Thursdays, and then monthly during the off season.