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Golden: We needed Gonzaga-Baylor dream matchup in the NCAA national championship game

Zags, Bears are seeking first NCAA Tournament title

Cedric Golden
Austin American-Statesman
  • Jalen Suggs' buzzer beat gave Gonzaga a 93-90 win over UCLA
  • Baylor routed Houston 78-59 in the other semifinal
  • The two teams were originally scheduled to play in early December in Indianapolis but the game was canceled due to COVID-19 concerns

Total respect for would-be giant killer UCLA, but it had to be 1 versus 2.

College basketball needed Gonzaga against Baylor.

After everything the country has been through, the idea of a season-ending showdown between the unquestioned two best teams was too good to miss.

Thankfully, Jalen Suggs didn't.

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Gonzaga guard Jalen Suggs (1) celebrates making the winning basket against UCLA during overtime of the semifinal of the men's NCAA Tournament on Saturday. Gonzaga won 93-90 and will face Baylor in Monday's national title game.

It’s possible the top-ranked Zags would have been chasing a repeat national championship had COVID-19 not shut down the planet — and the NCAA Tournament — last spring,  but they steamrolled the 2021 competition and entered the Madness as the prohibitive favorite to win it.

The one knock on Mark Few’s team was that in the midst of its season-long domination, Gonzaga wasn’t battled tested. Before Saturday’s great escape — with the buzzer-beating Suggs capably pulling off his best impression of the Cooler King — the Zags had beaten 29 of its 30 previous opponents by double digits. Only Big 12 team West Virginia, which lost 87-82 on Dec. 2, managed to stay within 10.

UCLA, a 14-point underdog, nearly pulled off the impossible.

As the Bruins matched the Zags shot for shot — Mick Cronin’s bunch didn’t resemble the struggling group that lost four straight to end the regular season — the idea of losing a 1-2 showdown was approaching critical mass. UCLA gave Gonzaga all it could handle, and then some.

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Gonzaga guard Jalen Suggs (1) shoots over UCLA guard David Singleton (34) to win the game in overtime during the men's semifinal of the NCAA Tournament on Saturday. No. 1 Gonzaga will face No. 2 Baylor in Monday's national title game.

The Bruins shot 57.6% from the field and 8-of-17 from 3-point range — numbers that usually add up to a win — but the Zags found a way move on, thanks to a few bushel baskets of grit and a sweet piece of magic, courtesy of their star guard.

“We had to dig as deep as we’ve ever had to in quite a while,” said Few. “Not just this year but way back. Man, is UCLA tough.”

In 27-2 Baylor, Gonzaga (31-0) will face an opponent that started the season like gangbusters before a bout with COVID-19 nearly decimated the locker room, causing the cancellation of four games in the first two weeks of December. Included on that list was a Gonzaga-Baylor matchup on Dec. 5, in Indianapolis of all places.

Talk about coming coming full circle.

This was well worth the wait as it turned out. Gonzaga remains the title favorite, but the Baylor team we’ve witnessed over the last three rounds is similar to the juggernaut from the first two months of the season.

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Baylor guard Jared Butler gets a hug from head coach Scott Drew during the second half of a men's Final Four semifinal game against Houston on Saturday. Baylor won 78-59 and will face Gonzaga in Monday's national title game.

Sure, the Zags have been sleeping on silk sheets for the entire season but if it’s possible to have one’s iron sharpened to the fullest in a single game, it happened on Saturday, April 3, 2021.

While Baylor had zero problems with Houston in the first national semifinal, the Zags made a magical shot to survive. As I watched the celebration play out on the flat screen, my thoughts flashed back to the afternoon of Oct. 15, 2005.

The Texas football team, ranked No. 2 in the country and in the midst of a special season, had just routed Colorado 42-17 that day to improve to 6-0 and I was among two dozen media members sitting in the cavernous interview room at Royal-Memorial Stadium awaiting postgame interviews.

We had become accustomed to speaking with the teams’ two biggest stars — quarterback Vince Young and safety Michael Huff — in the formal setting after home games followed by some breakout interviews in a nearby meeting room, but on this day, VY and Huff Daddy were noticeably late in arriving.

Then we heard a huge yell go up in the Texas locker room, located nearby.

A local TV sports photographer announced, “They’re in there watching USC and Notre Dame. USC is losing, but they’re down on the goal line.”

The Trojans were the gold standard at the time. They were coming off a back-to-back national championships — the 2004 title was later vacated for NCAA infractions — and were riding a 27-game winning streak, yet they were losing 31-28 to Notre Dame in the final seconds.

Everyone, from the media in California and Texas to national enthusiasts, had already started a slow simmer on the idea of a dream title matchup at the Rose Bowl between the two most talented teams in America even though we were just at the midway point of the season.

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So when USC quarterback Matt Leinart crossed the goal line on a sneak with three seconds remaining — a play forever known as the Bush Push because running back Reggie Bush provided an able shove to get his teammate across the goal line — the potential battle of the unbeatens remained alive.

A few minutes after USC’s own escape, in strode Young, wearing a smile.

“Were you guys watching USC and Notre Dame?” I asked.

“Yeah, we were watching,” he said with his characteristic nervous giggle. “We wanted them to win. We wanna play’em.”

Well, Suggs starred in a dual role of Leinart and Bush because his shot not only provided the winning margin but also pushed the unbeaten Zags into the championship game for the second time in the last four tournaments.

It also set the stage for a showdown of the two best teams. This collision is along the same lines of Magic Johnson and his Michigan State team versus Larry Bird and Indiana State in 1979, North Carolina and Georgetown in 1992, North Carolina against Michigan's Fab Five in 1993 and UConn against Duke in 1999. All were massively hyped games that mostly lived up to the expectations.

This one promises to deliver in kind.

Yes, COVID-19 took away a regular season matchup that would have provided a great preview to what was to come, but aren’t we even more fortunate to have these two meet on the sport’s grandest stage?

“I cannot wait to get there,” Suggs said. “It’s going to be a dogfight, there’s no other way to put it.”

Gonzaga vs. Baylor. One vs. two. How we got here no longer matters, coronavirus be damned. This will go down as one of the most imperfect of college basketball seasons, but we’re getting the perfect matchup at the perfect time.

Let’s enjoy it.

We’ve earned the right.