In the end, it might be better this way.
There will be no Zags living in incessant regret. There will be no nightmares about the dumb foul, silly turnover or shot that rattled out.
This wasn’t an opportunity that slipped through their fingers. This was more like five fingers that slapped them across the face.
Baylor pummeled Gonzaga 86-70 in Monday’s NCAA tournament men’s basketball championship game, preventing the Bulldogs from completing an undefeated season. The Bears scored the first nine points of the game, 29 of the first 39, and outclassed the Zags (31-1) in just about every category.
All Gonzaga runs were quickly extinguished by a Baylor squad that looked like it was playing on fast-forward while its opponent was on slo-mo. Zags coach Mark Few was hoping to raise arms in victory when the final buzzer sounded. Instead, all he could do was shrug.
“It’s a really tough one to end a storybook season on, but listen, they just beat us in every facet of the game tonight and deserve all the credit,” said Few, whose Bulldogs have lost in the championship game twice in the past four NCAA tournaments. “Obviously, we’re all disappointed in here, but as I told the guys — if 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 that you should ever feel bad about.”
The Zags’ emotions after Monday’s game stood in stark contrast to what they felt two nights earlier. Their three-point win over UCLA in the national semifinal — capped by a 40-foot buzzer-beater by freshman Jalen Suggs — will go down as one of the greatest games in college hoops history.
But one has to wonder if the euphoria Gonzaga experienced Saturday translated into lethargy in the title game.
It’s not just that Baylor (28-2) was making its outside shots (it hit 10 of its 23 three-pointers as Gonzaga went 5 for 17), it’s that it out-rebounded the Zags 38-22. It’s not just that the Bears were getting whatever they wanted offensively — forcing Few to switch from man to zone then back to man again — it’s that they forced 14 turnovers while committing just nine.
There was a moment of hope for the Zags when they went into halftime down 10 after cutting into a 19-point deficit. Then, Baylor’s Jared Butler knocked down three-pointers on consecutive possessions. There was another moment in which the Zags got the lead down to nine with 14:30 to go. Then came a layup from Mark Vital, two free throws from Butler, a jumper from MaCio Teague and a three-pointer from Adam Flagler.
Simply put: The flipping of the switch was never going to happen. It was clear who had the better squad. As Charles Barkley said of the Zags after the game: “They couldn’t beat that team.”
Not only was that Gonzaga’s first loss of the season, it was its first loss since February 22 of 2020 (BYU), about three weeks before the NCAA tournament was canceled. And that BYU loss was the first loss for the Zags since they fell to Michigan in November of 2019. Gonzaga had won 62 of its previous 64 games before Monday night, and senior Corey Kispert admitted — the feeling was unusual.
“You kind of forget, you really do forget what it’s like to lose, and every time it doesn’t feel good. And thankfully I haven’t had very many of them,” said Kispert, the Edmonds native and All-American who scored 12 points Monday. “But when you go up against a team like that, that’s just firing on all cylinders for 40 minutes, it’s really hard to compete with.”
Still, despite the heartache, Kispert maintained perspective.
How would you encapsulate this season? a reporter asked.
“The word that comes to my mind is grateful,” said the senior. “I’m so grateful for being able to wear this name on my chest. So grateful to all the people who made the season happen in Spokane. So grateful for our guys for sticking with it through the very end. A lot of the days weren’t easy, there were a lot of really tough ones. But looking back this has been by far the most special six months of my life.”
It was special for all those who got to watch, too — for both the fans they had and the fans they gained. But as they say, you can’t win ’em all — and this one, frankly, seemed like it couldn’t be won.