We yearned for Gonzaga versus Baylor all year, especially after an early-season matchup was teased than stolen away by a wicked Madame. Months later, we were gifted the 2021 Men’s Basketball National Championship game. Baylor’s 86-70 defeat of Gonzaga on Monday night wasn’t just an essential end to an unprecedented year. It was the accelerant in society’s trek back to something normal.
Everything has been corrected. After the upset-riddled first and second rounds, the underwhelming Sweet 16 and Elite Eight, and split theatrics of the Final Four, the basketball world got its national championship game. There was no better setting than the blue-collar plains of basketball country: Indiana. The stage was raised as warm bodies were sprinkled amongst the cardboard still frames. The fans in attendance and the viewers sitting on the edge of their worn couch cushions witnessed something extraordinary tonight. They witnessed history.
How society is inching back to normal through global uncertainty can coincide with the gradual progression of sports. Professional competition was paused before golf, racing, and European soccer started playing again with limitations. The NHL made a playoff bubble and the NBA followed suit, each league crowning a champion in front of empty seats. The NFL started and completed a full season, and MLB fit in a neutral-site World Series to appease the fanatic’s desire for their favorite fall spectacle. Now, baseball has started their regular marathon season with fans in the stands. What we really needed, however, was a college basketball champion.
The final seconds sprinted toward zero before the green and yellow confetti poured onto the hardwood below. It was tamed hysteria. The Baylor players jumped for joy and embraced each other as students in Waco crowded the football field back home in pure exhilaration. The Bears never trailed in the game. It was dominance at its best.
How did we get to this shining moment? The short answer is humbled perspective and survival. In more relevant terms, the Bears’ two losses to Kansas and Oklahoma State, and Jalen Suggs’ magnificent 40-foot miracle.
Baylor came out with a fury of energy, ballooning to a 16-4 lead in the first five-plus minutes. Their defense was tenacious, forcing offensive fouls and eight turnovers, and only allowing heavily contested shots. Suggs picked up two fouls in the first four minutes, and the game looked over early. It was reminiscent of 2017 when they played poorly during their national championship game loss to North Carolina.
On the offensive end, Baylor was scoring at will. With huge first-half performances by MaCio Teague and All-American Jared Butler, the Bears once led by as many as 19 points. Grabbing nine offensive rebounds and holding the Bulldogs to a measly 16.7% shooting from 3-point range certainly helped.
Then, Gonzaga turned things around with just over six minutes to play. The Bulldogs finished the half on a 21-12 run, cutting the deficit to a workable 10 points going into the break. Gonzaga ended up shooting 54.5% for the half.
Gonzaga pushed the pace and was able to get to the basket in the second. Layup after layup was made, but unfortunately for the Bulldogs, three is better than two.
Baylor led the nation in 3-point percentage this year, and their excellence was on full display this evening. The Bears countered the Bulldogs by doing what they did best. For the season, Baylor was 41.23% from long distance. Tonight, they shot 43.5%.
Yet, the key was limiting Gonzaga’s chances. During the season, the Bulldogs shot 37.01% which was top-50 in the country. However, the Baylor defense held the Bulldogs to a dismal 5-17 shooting beyond the arc. All-American Corey Kispert was just 2-7 from deep and finished with 12 points. He shot 44.5% from 3-point range heading into the game.
Gonzaga cut the lead to as little as nine early in the half, but Baylor then went on a 15-4 run and never truly looked back. The hope of a comeback was diminished, and it was a team effort by the Bears. They made Drew Timme irrelevant early in the second half after he picked up his fourth foul. Mark Vital grabbed eight of the team’s 16 offensive rebounds, and four players were in double figures. Butler led all scorers with 22 points, and fellow All-American Davion Mitchell put in a 15-point, six-rebound, five-assist performance.
“We play with a culture of joy,” Baylor Head Coach Scott Drew said while being presented the championship trophy. “The city of Waco deserves this.”
Drew is a great coach, the team had great players, and this was a moment long sought after by a great athletic university. No matter the overall quality of the competitiveness or lack of suspense, we all watched. It was still needed. It sure beats a pandemic.
Baylor is not a villain. Mid-majors have proven that they can compete, so the “weak conference” argument is weakening in itself. Remember, two of the Final Four teams this year were from mid-major conferences. In fact, the Bears have had less program success than Gonzaga when it comes to the NCAA Tournament. Baylor has made 13 tournament appearances in comparison to the Bulldogs’ 23. Sure, the Bears have been to two more Elite Eights and one more Final Four, but neither school had ever won a title. The last time Baylor was in a national championship game was 1948.
The Bears were a great team, but the Zags received just a tad more attention—to the point that Baylor was an underdog. This game could have happened last season. Since November 2019, Gonzaga and Baylor had lost a combined seven games. Well, eight now.
Baylor deserved this championship just as much as Gonzaga. Scott Drew has built a strong program in his 18 years at the helm. Perhaps they have been undervalued or unrecognized due to Kansas’ Big 12 supremacy during this century. Yet, the Bears were as complete and as dominant as any team in history. Their two blemishes were exaggerated because Gonzaga was en route to a perfect season. The last team to have only two losses and win a national championship game was Kentucky in 2012. Since Indiana’s 1975-76 undefeated season, only six other national champions have had two or less losses. What Baylor did was also a rare feat.
Settling for normal would have been more than suitable for what society has been through. Maybe we needed this type of dominance as a metaphor for how we can overcome the unthinkable.
We have been humbled, we have survived. We are back.
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