Men’s Final Four sees Baylor take title

Gonzaga guard Jalen Suggs (1) looks on as Baylor’s MaCio Teague (right) shoots over Gonzaga’s Drew Timme. Teague helped lead the Bears to an 86-70 win over the previously undefeated Zags. // Photo courtesy of Michael Conroy via AP Photo

The Men’s Final Four took place on April 2, 2021 in Lucas Oil Stadium in Indianapolis, Indiana. The entirety of March Madness took place in Indianapolis at various arenas. The night began with the Baylor Bears showing their dominance and skill. A team that only lost one regular season game to Kansas after a pause due to COVID-19 protocols, Baylor’s ability to make a run deep into March was questioned all year. Their season included wins over nationally ranked programs like Illinois, Texas Tech, and Texas, but the Bears were always doubted, especially after losing in the Big XII Tournament Semifinals. Led by a world class trio of guards in Jared Butler, Davion Mitchell, and MaCio Teague, the Bears earned themselves a one seed. Scott Drew’s squad silenced the haters in Indy on their way to the Final Four, defeating 16-seed Hartford, nine-seed Wisconsin, five-seed Villanova, and three-seed Arkansas. Facing off with the Midwest Regional Champion Houston Cougars for a spot in the championship, the Bears took control early and never relinquished it.

Houston’s Marcus Sasser opened the game with a 3 point shot that was immediately answered by Baylor’s Jared Butler and Davion Mitchell with 3’s of their own. The game was tight until the under-16 minute timeout of the first half. After play resumed, Baylor quickly opened up their lead, and by halftime the Bears’ advantage was 25 points. Houston never came close to a sniff of the lead again in this game that ended 78-58 in favor of Baylor. The real difference in this game was Baylor’s bench outscoring Houston’s by 21. Baylor also grabbed 13 more rebounds than Houston did. Overall, the Bears proved they were legit and championship-tier.

Baylor’s opponent was determined a couple hours later in what might be one of the best college basketball games of the 21st century. The 11-seed UCLA Bruins barely made the Big Dance after losing their last three regular season games and dropping a game to the eventual PAC-12 champion Oregon State in the PAC-12 Tournament Quarterfinals. But led by Tyger Campell, Jaime Jacquez, and Johnny Juzang, the Bruins mounted a surging run from the First Four In to the Final Four, barely escaping against Michigan State in the play in game to then go on and take down six-seed BYU, 14-seed Abilene Christian, two-seed Alabama, and one-seed Michigan.

The Bruins were met by Mark Few’s undefeated Gonzaga team that has been the talk of college basketball all year. Early in the year they took down a slew of top ranked teams and Virginia before beginning conference play. The Zags won just about every game in the West Coast Conference with ease, though they were challenged by BYU in the WCC Title Game. Still, Gonzaga arrived in Indianapolis undefeated. They opened the Tournament with a 43 point victory over 16-seed Norfolk State and then took down eight-seed Oklahoma, five-seed Creighton, and six-seed USC to win their region.

No one thought UCLA stood a chance. The closest game Gonzaga played all year, the Bruins could not miss, shooting 57% from the field and 47% from three, they were only slightly outmatched by the Zags shooting 58% from the field and 33% from three. This was normal for Gonzaga. UCLA was not far behind, with 14 points from Cody Riley, 19 from Jacquez, 17 from Campbell, and 29 from Juzang.

The difference in this game only seemed to be time. With less than 10 seconds left in overtime, UCLA held the ball for the final shot, a layup kissed off the glass from Juzang. At this point everyone exhaled expecting Gonzaga to let the clock run out so that a second overtime would ensue, but a quick play and heads up pass put the rock in Suggs hands, who got across halfcourt just in time to bank in a three that would leave us with a 93-90 Gonzaga victory. While most of us would call that a prayer, Mark Few told the media afterwards that he “knew when [Jalen] shot it, it was going in.”

So the title game would give America what it had been waiting for all year. COVID-19 took away this matchup in Indianapolis between these squads that was supposed to occur on December 5 in Lucas Oil Stadium. Luckily for us, the chance to see that game.

Baylor won the tipoff and took it to the Zags early, scoring nine before the Zags would score their first point at the free throw line. The Bulldogs struggled to find touches in the paint for Power Forward of the Year Drew Timme, and Gonzaga Guard Jalen Suggs had to sit out some of the first half after picking up two early fouls. Baylor was not without foul trouble themselves, having three players with two personal fouls and one with three, but their tough defense opened up a lead as large as 19 along with going 7/12 from three despite shooting 5% worse than Gonzaga overall. Gonzaga made eight of their last 11 from the field to close the first half at a 10 point deficit.

After halftime not a whole lot changed. The Bears continued to stifle Gonzaga’s offense, and the Zags defense had no answer for the triple threat of Baylor’s guards. Baylor’s Jared Butler had 22 points on the night to lead the Bears in scoring, followed closely behind by Teague with 19 and Mitchell with 15. Adam Flagler added a fourth prong to Baylor’s guard threat with 13 points off the bench.

Jalen Suggs led the Zags in scoring with 22 and was followed by Timme and Kispert with 12 each, but once again Baylor’s bench made a huge difference, outscoring Gonzaga’s by 14. Baylor also dominated the glass, out rebounding the Zags 38 to 22. Gonzaga was also plagued with 14 turnovers in comparison to Baylor’s nine. Baylor had eight players score in the contest whereas Gonzaga only had seven. It would seem that the undefeated Bulldogs didn’t know how to mount a comeback and were still recovering from a tough fight against UCLA. Ultimately the Bears capped off the title run with an 86-70 victory, handing Gonzaga their first, only and final loss of the season.