INDIANAPOLIS — There was a symmetry about Gonzaga’s arrival in the N.C.A.A. men’s basketball championship game — the unbeaten Zags bidding to be the first unblemished champion since Indiana, the state’s flagship basketball school, last accomplished the feat in 1976.
That Gonzaga, the small Jesuit school tucked away on the less urbane side of the Cascade Range, rolled up with a freewheeling offense, one that would appeal to the basketball cognoscenti’s “Hoosiers” sensibilities was all the better.
A Gonzaga victory would have also put a bow on a season that was played through a pandemic, when about one in five games — including a first-round matchup in this tournament — were called off and some teams went weeks without being able to play.
Baylor, though, had other ideas, laying waste to those plans with a wrecking ball defense and a hail of 3-pointers, ruining Gonzaga’s bid for a perfect season on Monday night with an 86-70 victory at Lucas Oil Stadium to claim the program’s first championship.
Baylor’s guard trio, which was advertised as the best in the country, was as good as its billing with Jared Butler scoring 22 points with 7 assists, Davion Mitchell adding 15 points and 5 assists, and MaCio Teague contributing 19 points. And the Baylor defense held the Zags to a season-low point total.
As the final buzzer sounded, the Bears — who were eliminated by Gonzaga in the second round two years ago — bounded off the bench and onto the court, having vanquished the team they had long been eyeing.
Almost from the moment the season tipped off in late November, the Bears (28-2) had laid in the shadow of Gonzaga (31-1), and they entered the tournament as they entered the season — as the second-ranked team in the country.
As Baylor cruised past Houston in one semifinal on Saturday night, Gonzaga had less than 48 hours to recover from a slugfest with U.C.L.A. They had staved off the No. 11-seeded Bruins in overtime only when Jalen Suggs banked in a shot from near half court at the buzzer.
“There was a tremendous amount of energy expended by our guys and at the same time, obviously, the emotions — I don’t think you can get a more emotional roller coaster over the course of two hours,” Gonzaga Coach Mark Few said on Sunday afternoon.
When the ball is thrown up at the start of a championship game, the football stadiums where basketball title games are now staged are typically pulsating with energy. But because of local health restrictions, the stadium floor was sheathed in half by a black curtain and only a little over 20 percent of the building’s seats were filled.
If the energy wasn’t supplied by the crowd, the Bears brought their own, scoring the first 9 points of the game and Gonzaga, looking flat-footed at the start, never drew closer.
Baylor was in the championship game for the first time since 1948 and became the second team from Texas to win a title — the other being Texas-Western, whose landmark victory in 1966 was the first achieved with an all-Black lineup.
This rare matchup of the top-ranked teams was a long time coming.
The two coaches, Scott Drew and Few, have a deep connection. Baylor has two assistants who have worked or played for Few; Gonzaga has one who has worked for Drew’s brother, Bryce. The coaches are avid fishermen — “he’s the king of fly fishing; I think I’m king of the bass fishing,” Drew said — and have teamed up as pickle ball partners during their time in Indianapolis, sending text messages to each other with a prayer and good luck wishes before each game here.
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Their scheduled game in Indianapolis on Dec. 5 was canceled 90 minutes before tipoff because of a positive tests within Gonzaga’s traveling party.
As Drew and Few were riding back to their hotel after a news conference, they joked about meeting again in April. Still, they tried furiously to reschedule the game, in part because of their obligation to broadcast partners but also because they thought such a matchup would generate attention on the sport when many viewers were focused on football.
They considered Indianapolis, Las Vegas; Kansas City, Mo.; Phoenix’ and Sioux Falls, S.D. — also Fort Worth, Texas, though that was too close to a Baylor home game for Few.
“Our futile human plans,” Few called the arrangements.
Baylor kept pace with Gonzaga for three months until it was thrown off course by the coronavirus. The Bears, who won their first 18 games, didn’t play for 21 days beginning in early February. When they returned, they barely escaped against Iowa State, the last-place team in the Big 12 and then lost at Kansas. They recovered to win their next four games before being beaten by Oklahoma State in the Big 12 tournament semifinals.
A lockdown defense had suddenly become leaky.
“You can’t be good at defense and not practice it for three weeks, four weeks, five weeks,” said Drew, whose team played so frequently when it returned that there was little time to practice until the week between postseason tournaments. At a time when coaches dial back on practice, Drew worked his players hard.
“Our players really bought in that our defense was slipping,” he said.
The Bears held their six tournament opponents to an average of 61.7 points per game, throttling Houston and Villanova, two of the top seven most efficient offenses in the country, according to the statistical analyst Ken Pomeroy.
A sign of Baylor’s priorities came on the opening tip when it placed Davion Mitchell, the national defensive player of the year not on Suggs, the freshman who is expected to be one of the top picks in the N.B.A. draft, but on Corey Kispert, a sharpshooting forward who had been off his form for much of the tournament.
If Mitchell could neutralize Kispert, the Bears had the muscle, quickness and doggedness to handle everyone else. It quickly proved a shrewd assessment.
The Zags’ symphonic offense was knocked catawampus by Baylor’s relentless defense. And at the other end, Gonzaga’s defense offered scant resistance as a parade of Bears burst past their defenders leading to lay-ins and open, in-rhythm looks for the best 3-point shooting team in the country. Baylor made its first five 3-pointers and a little more than 7 minutes into the game had put Gonzaga in a 23-8 hole — its largest of the season.
Such was a sign of Gonzaga’s desperation that the Zags — who found themselves behind by as many as 19 points — switched to a zone defense.
It slowed Baylor’s assault somewhat and by making their free throws, 12 of 13, they crept within 47-37 at halftime on Anton Watson’s lay-in just before the buzzer.
Each time Gonzaga surged in the second half, it could not string together enough stops to draw closer to the Bears. Suggs, after getting fouled on a layup for a pair of his team-high 22 points, exhorted the crowd and his teammates, and a short while later Baylor was put in a vulnerable position when Jonathan Tchamwa Tchatchoua joined Baylor’s other center, Flo Thamba, with four fouls.
But after Gonzaga closed within 62-51, Butler got into the teeth of the defense and found Mark Vital for a layup and on the next possession fired a crosscourt pass to Adam Flagler, who knocked down an open 3-pointer to widen the Bears’ lead.
When Drew Timme picked up a pair of quick fouls, his third and fourth, and went to the bench with 11:36 left, it made the uphill climb even more arduous — and ultimately futile.
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