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Gonzaga tastes the bitter truth of the NCAA tournament: There can be only one winner

Gonzaga forward Corey Kispert, left, hugs Jalen Suggs as forward Drew Timme looks on at the end of the championship game against Baylor. (Darron Cummings/AP)

INDIANAPOLIS — During their final few minutes on the court together Monday night, the Gonzaga Bulldogs slipped into a state of dread they had yet to experience this season, magnified by the stakes of the matchup and all the more staggering because of the history they chased. As the final buzzer sounded and the Baylor fans roared, the Gonzaga stars didn’t let go of their consolatory hugs. In that moment, the inevitable result became final. There would be no national title and no perfect season, only a bitter end to an otherwise exceptional season.

“You really do forget what it’s like to lose,” senior forward Corey Kispert said not long after he and his teammates trudged off the court at Lucas Oil Stadium, leaving Baylor players and staff to celebrate their well-earned national title.

This year’s Gonzaga men’s basketball team never needed to learn how to lose. The Bulldogs entered the NCAA tournament championship game with a 31-0 record. They stood one win from becoming undefeated national champions, a crown no team has worn since 1976. With each game, first through the regular season and then in the tournament, the Bulldogs inched closer. A perfect season started to seem attainable. They won in style and with force, rarely letting their dominance seem threatened.

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But all that hope disappeared in an evening. The Bears became the aggressor, and the Bulldogs tried to claw back to no avail. With the 86-70 defeat, Gonzaga now has a season that will be remembered as just short of perfection. This one blemish always will be attached to everything else this team accomplished.

Earlier during the tournament, Coach Mark Few said it was unfair to see only two outcomes for his team this season — that Gonzaga would either cap a perfect season with a national title or be remembered as a disappointment. So after the Bulldogs lost in the championship game, Few said he told his players, “You make it this far and you’re 31-0 going into the last one, the last 40 minutes of the season, there’s absolutely nothing you should ever feel bad about.”

Baylor had been pegged as Gonzaga’s top challenger all season, and the Bears’ run through the tournament set up a marquee title game, a matchup that had been scheduled during nonconference play but canceled because of coronavirus cases in the Bulldogs’ program. When the teams finally met, each competing for the first men’s basketball national championship in its school’s history, the Bears were more physical, athletic and dominant in every area. Gonzaga didn’t collapse. Baylor simply delivered a three-point shooting clinic, while also grabbing tough rebounds and playing elite defense.

“It’s a really, really tough one to end a storybook season on,” Few said. “But listen, Baylor just beat us. They beat us in every facet of the game tonight and deserve all the credit.”

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Baylor scored 11 points before Gonzaga made its first field goal. The Bulldogs trailed by 19 points midway through the first half. The Bears grabbed 16 offensive rebounds, good for 16 second-chance points. They made 10 shots from three-point range, while Gonzaga hit only five (and four of those came after the Bears had taken a 20-point lead with 10:39 to go). Baylor had too many athletic guards who could shoot and defend.

Gonzaga tried to adjust, briefly switching to a zone defense with the hopes that might spark a turnaround. The Bulldogs had opportunities to climb back into the game. Near the end of the first half, freshman standout Jalen Suggs completed a three-point play. And then after Baylor’s Davion Mitchell dribbled out most of the shot clock and air-balled a deep shot, Gonzaga’s Anton Watson made a layup in transition just before the halftime buzzer. Despite the brutal first half, the Bulldogs faced a manageable 10-point deficit. But after the break, Baylor asserted itself again.

This season’s Gonzaga team had a prolific offense with a star freshman point guard in Suggs, a senior all-American in Kispert and a usually dominant post player in sophomore Drew Timme. The Bulldogs formed a cohesive unit that was so versatile and moved the ball so well that no opponent could stop them — until they met Baylor in the title game.

The Bears took Gonzaga out of its rhythm, and Kispert said, “I’m so used to, if that happens, we take that punch and move on and get on with the game and just fight back.” With a national title at stake, the Bulldogs never made that push.

After Gonzaga arrived in Indianapolis as the No. 1 overall seed, the players insisted that the prospect of a perfect season didn’t add pressure. Once the tournament games began, all teams have to win six consecutive games to win a title. The Bulldogs, despite their undefeated record, were no different.

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“As Coach Few said, he said it a million times that we never really talked about it,” Kispert said. “And that’s the truth.”

But they still hoped this season would end with the school’s first national title. Suggs, who will soon become an NBA draft lottery pick, left the court with a towel over his head. The Baylor players had just stormed atop the courtside tables, just as Suggs did two nights prior when he banked in a 37-footer at the buzzer to beat UCLA in overtime — perhaps one of the best shots in March Madness history, one that will become part of NCAA tournament lore. But that moment, and all of Gonzaga’s accomplishments this season, will be accompanied with the season’s outcome. The Bulldogs will be the team that came so close to perfection but didn’t make it all the way.

“I think in his mind, he saw us cutting down the nets at the end of this,” Few said of Suggs, who had never lost a collegiate game. “But he’s also young. And as time goes by, he’ll gain better perspective on what an incredible impact he had on this team and on college basketball.”

That’s how Few tried to console Suggs and his teammates as they navigated this unfamiliar feeling. Sports produce binary outcomes: The Bulldogs could win or lose this game. They would complete the perfect season or fall short. So Few reminded them that these 40 minutes, for as much as Baylor dominated, don’t have to define their entire season.

“As a coach, you just try to give them as much perspective as you can,” Few said. “And as is usually the case with everything, time will lend them the best perspective.”