What followed was a scoring surge: a corner three-pointer in transition, an alley-oop attempt that turned into a swished-three and a pair of flamboyant dunks. Baylor changed defenses, going from man-to-man to a one-three-one zone. Gonzaga, particularly junior forward Brandon Clarke, tore right through that, too.
By the time it was over, the Bulldogs had an 83-71 win, Clarke had a game-high 36 points, and Gonzaga was planning for a Sweet 16 meeting with Florida State.
The Bulldogs (32-3), a No. 1 seed for the second time in three years, had a size advantage at every position. They used their speed and strength to dictate a fast tempo and topple the ninth-seeded Bears (20-14), who have made four Sweet 16 appearances since 2010. The Bulldogs continued their stretch of dominance during the NCAA tournament’s opening weekend, advancing to the Sweet 16 for the fifth consecutive year, the longest-active streak.
“We ended up beating them on the glass, and we ended up holding them to four threes,” Few said. “It’s awesome to make our fifth straight Sweet 16. We do not take that for granted at all. That is an amazing accomplishment that the players in the program have been able to execute and come through in the most pressure moments.”
The win showcased the Bulldogs’ depth. Rui Hachimura, a 6-foot-8 power forward who entered the night averaging 20.1 points and 6.6 rebounds, had a rare off night. The West Coast Conference player of the year and projected first-round pick in June’s NBA draft finished with six points and a lot of missed layups.
Yet Clarke stepped forward with a career game, setting a Bulldogs NCAA tournament scoring record, which came on an astonishing 15-for-18 shooting performance. He lofted jump hooks from the block, rolled off high ball screens into open space down low and found himself down low for crisp feeds and easy dunks. He added eight rebounds.
“This is easily the most fun I’ve had playing ball ever,” said Clarke, who also had five blocks. “I’m really blessed to have the chance to come here and to play for the Zags. Obviously, it was tough last year not playing. But it was something that was huge for me. It’s something I wouldn’t change.”
In the second game of their 21st straight NCAA tournament — the fourth-longest current streak in the nation — the Bulldogs were far from flawless. The Bears clawed back into the ballgame with a 10-0 run out of the half. Few needed a timeout. Gonzaga regrouped and reloaded, mostly behind Clarke, and countered several Baylor runs that cut into the lead with a run of its own. The Bulldogs turned the ball over 11 times and had only five points from the bench.
At the half, down 16 with the season on the line, the Bears’ coaching staff assembled in small huddle outside its locker room. The coaches stared at the first-half box score. Then they talked for several minutes, dissecting what went wrong in the little time it took Gonzaga to pull away. One coach shook his head, a frustration plenty of coaches facing Gonzaga have shared.
For the remainder of the game, the Bulldogs kept their distance. At times, as if the rim were covered, Clarke altered layup attempts and blocked dump-offs. Their length helped them tip or intercept a number of passes by reaching into passing lanes. Offensively, they weren’t as efficient as usual, but they found room for three-pointers or feeds to Clarke against the Baylor zone.
“This team is so special,” Few said. “We were the ones making plays. We were the ones hustling and getting those 50/50 balls.”
As the final buzzer sounded, Few took a few steps toward half-court to meet Baylor Coach Scott Drew. As the Gonzaga fans — situated behind the team bench about 40 rows deep — stood up for a standing ovation, Few turned to his left. He clapped and waved that way, with another win, another late March advance, another triumph behind him.