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Baylor defeats Gonzaga, earns first men’s basketball national title

Baylor forward Jonathan Tchamwa Tchatchoua dunks over Gonzaga in the second half. (Darron Cummings/AP)

INDIANAPOLIS — Baylor, which spent the early part of the century as a men’s basketball hellscape crawling with skulduggery and worse, spent Monday night as a brilliant, kinetic credit to its sport. It became the 37th different college to win a national championship, and it carved out a starring presence in future discussions about who has made the highest climbs from the lowest depths.

Baylor’s 86-70 win — which followed a fast start with leads of 9-0, 23-8 and 35-16 — cemented an NCAA men’s tournament in which it never really had to hyperventilate. Baylor (28-2) gave the record books some editing. The Bears placed Gonzaga (31-1) as the third team to go all the way to the final night unbeaten and then lose just once — after Ohio State in 1960-61 and Larry Bird’s Indiana State squad in 1978-79 — and they prevented the Bulldogs from becoming the first team since Indiana in 1975-76 to spend a season free of losing.

“As RGIII would always say, ‘No pressure, no diamonds,’” Baylor Coach Scott Drew said in reference to a certain Baylor quarterback. “Our guys, the better the opponent, the better they play.”

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“Well, hey,” Gonzaga Coach Mark Few said, “it’s a really, really tough one to end a storybook season, but listen, Baylor just beat us. They beat us in every facet of the game tonight.”

“You really do forget what it’s like to lose,” Gonzaga senior all-American Corey Kispert said.

Baylor fans rushed the field at a watch party in Waco, Tex. on April 6 after the team won their first men’s basketball national title. (Video: Cameron Seeby via Storyful)

The reminder came swiftly, and emphatically, and with the charismatic verve and prowess of Baylor’s four indomitable guards — Jared Butler, Davion Mitchell, MaCio Teague and Adam Flagler. “We say it all the time: We think we’re the best guards in the nation,” Butler said, and they went about making that as close as it gets to inarguable.

They filled the court with splashy three-point shots and picturesque assists. They operated with a charismatic energy and prowess with which Gonzaga could not cope, on both ends, right from the first steps out of the locker room.

It left a wide range of effects. It took a Gonzaga-Baylor matchup craved all year long and left it deflated of suspense, two nights after that paragon of suspense, Gonzaga’s 93-90 overtime win over UCLA. It took the level of a Baylor team that lost a smidgen of its zest after a quirky three-week coronavirus hiatus in February, and it restored it to resemble the team that had spent the first 18 games of the season unbeaten itself.

It acted like some awful wind going through Gonzaga, defusing its 92-points-per-game offense and leaving it flustered. It ended a 55-year schneid for the state of Texas, which had won only one other national title, that of the historic Texas Western team of 1966. It enabled Baylor, somehow, to beat Gonzaga to the punch of a first national title, even though the latter has been at this March Madness for a bewildering 22 straight tournaments, including two closing-night losses since 2017.

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Most of all, it left an implausible pinnacle at the end of the 18th season of Drew, who signed on at a nadir of nadirs in August 2003, after one teammate had murdered another and a head coach had tried to slander the deceased amid a bushel of recruiting violations.

The numbers shouted the energy. Baylor took 24 of the game’s first 36 shots. It out-shot Gonzaga 67-49, so that the percentages (44.8 for Baylor, 51.0 for Gonzaga) went moot. There were 38 rebounds to 22 for Gonzaga, 16 offensive rebounds to five. There were 10 for 23 on three-point shots, befitting the team ranked No. 1 nationally in that vein, to just 5 for 17 for Gonzaga.

“The more aggressive team gets more calls,” Kispert said. “The more aggressive team makes more threes. The more aggressive teams gets more rebounds.”

From a team so hard to guard because the guards all can create their own shots and their own dents in your night, Butler had 22 points, 4 for 9 on three point shots and seven assists, becoming most outstanding player of the Final Four. Teague had 19 points, Mitchell 15 points, six rebounds and five assists, Flagler 13 points. Gonzaga, like many before it, didn’t really know where to look.

Then there’s this, from Drew: “I mean, we’re really good defensively.” That’s especially true with Mitchell, the defensive player of the year in the whole land of defenders.

“They were just so much more aggressive,” Few said. “They — literally, we haven’t played like that this year. They literally busted us out of anything we could possibly do on offense. We were playing with our back to the basket, not facing up. And we couldn’t get anything generated to the basket; we were kind of playing sideways.”

They played sideways from behind. From 0-0, Mitchell drained a 16-footer after two energetic offensive rebounds, Mark Vital bounced a pretty assist to Butler for a layup, Mitchell blasted in a three-point shot, and Butler weaved through half the entire defense through the lane for a layup. It stood 9-0, and it would never get any closer than 11-4.

“The start of the game was tremendous,” Butler said. “I know I didn’t, Adam didn’t, Mark didn’t, we didn’t look at the scoreboard.”

They just kept scoring, and as Butler realized Gonzaga did not seem to be scoring as often, he figured the margin might be gaping even if he couldn’t be sure. Then, when the Bulldogs provided glimmers by narrowing things to 47-37 at halftime and 58-49 with 14:29 left, the Bears merely would re-surge. So troubled were they at halftime that when they emerged, Butler, who had struggled with his shot in the first parts of the tournament, rained in two colossal three-point shots with a look of uncommon certainty.

When it got to 58-49, it soon got to 73-53.

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It left Gonzaga in these odd sorts of pieces. Jalen Suggs, forever famous for his 37-foot shot that ended the UCLA drama, had early foul trouble three-plus minutes in, 22 points on 8-for-15 shooting and many bold moves to the basket, but limited effect somehow. Big man Drew Timme, who had 19 assists and five turnovers in the tournament coming in, had five turnovers and three assists this time. Kispert shot 5 for 12 with 12 points.

All of it got lost in the stunning energy. All of it demanded a look back at the beginning, when Drew went 21-53 the first three seasons coming out of the wreckage and had the unenviable pleasure of conducting walk-on tryouts. He laughed out loud at that thought.

“Well,” he said, “obviously going into every game being 30- or 40-point underdogs and half your team walk-ons, and you know as a coach, if we can just keep it close, keep it within 20 by the first half, or 10 …”

Now, look. Now Butler followed Drew at the interview table, sat down and said, “Well, that’s the end of the season,” and broke into a considerable smile that looked downright electric.

— Story by Chuck Culpepper

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