INDIANAPOLIS — For 2 1/2 hours, they kept elevating each other, to levels of basketball neither Gonzaga nor UCLA had ever been forced to reach. Though they had arrived at this Final Four moment from very different paths, it was becoming increasingly clear with each possession that their destiny was to pull the best out of each other until one of them could land the final blow.
Such a spectacle would not have been possible without the sheer greatness of Gonzaga, rising to its biggest challenge in a quest for perfection. Likewise, it wouldn’t have been possible without UCLA’s refusal to relent and 45 minutes of pure shot-making that would have seemed beyond its capability until it happened Saturday night in the men’s national semifinals.
We will remember Gonzaga 93, UCLA 90 for spectacular freshman Jalen Suggs adding to the NCAA Tournament’s annals of buzzer-beaters, with a heave from just beyond halfcourt that banked in so sweetly it almost seemed like he meant to do it. We’ll remember UCLA, a No. 11 seed that lived in the knife’s edge of elimination for three weeks, evolving in real time to the point where it could go blow-for-blow with one of the most dominant teams in the history of the sport.
And perhaps most of all, we’ll remember that this tournament often gives us the most when we expect the least, even in a mostly empty football stadium with thousands of cardboard cutouts planted in seats.
“We had the last possession,” Gonzaga coach Mark Few said. “And we were lucky enough to hit a 50-footer.”
Sorry, Mark, but those of us able to watch it were the lucky ones here. Because for all the great games this tournament produces every year, it’s rare that you see one so well-played by two teams from start to finish.
Monday night’s national championship between Gonzaga and Baylor is the most anticipated title game in years, matching teams that have been No. 1 and No. 2 most of the season, with the Zags trying to finish the first perfect season in the sport since 1976. And it can’t possibly live up to what already happened here Saturday night, from beginning to blissful end.
“I always wanted to run up on the table like Kobe (Bryant) and (Dwyane) Wade and go like that,” Suggs said, mimicking the gesture he made with his fists as he hopped onto the scorer’s table as soon as the shot went in. “That’s something you practice on your mini-hoop as a kid or in a gym just messing around. To be able to do that, it’s crazy.”
Should Gonzaga go on to win its first national title, the debate over what was the biggest play in saving the season against UCLA will be fodder for barstool conversations for decades. And it might extend beyond the last shot from Suggs, whose heroics also included a spectacular block at the rim on 6-foot-9 UCLA forward Cody Riley with two minutes left, then turning and firing a perfect pass down court to spring Drew Timme for a layup and a four-point swing.
Maybe some will argue for Timme himself, given that he decided to plant himself in the way of UCLA’s scorching hot guard Johnny Juzang on the last possession of regulation. Juzang drove right into a charge with just over a second left when a pull-up jumper or a defensive foul might have won it for the Bruins. Perhaps even Joel Ayayi will get into the conversation with his 22 points, or Andrew Nembhard for hitting his only 3-pointer with 1:15 left in overtime that put Gonzaga ahead by five points.
And yet, the pure gravity of that shot ending the game after everything that preceded it will be the moment that gets replayed as long as they hold this tournament.
“We haven’t had many games like this, but we worked on it a lot; we probably worked on more end-game situations this year than I ever have just because I knew we needed that,” Few said. “And he makes shots — he’s got that magical aura. He makes them in practice all the time. It’s been crazy this year how many he’s made in practice, last-second shots. I felt pretty good. I was staring right at it. And I said it’s in. And it was.”
As Gonzaga’s bench mobbed Suggs, UCLA players were on the other end of the court, staring at the celebration in stunned silence. The Bruins had basically played a perfect game for 44 minutes and 58 seconds, establishing early on that even as massive underdogs, they were there to compete. As the game went along, they executed their plan to perfection, slowing the tempo when they could, attacking the rim to collapse the defense and making open shots when they got them.
For the game, UCLA shot 57.6 percent, made 8 of 17 from the 3-point line and had just 10 turnovers. It simply was not in the DNA of this UCLA team to go away, and when Juzang got his 29th point on a putback to tie the game with three seconds left, that should have been enough to get into a second overtime, where maybe the Bruins might have had more magic left.
UCLA coach Mick Cronin had preached all night to his team that they needed to drop back defensively and prevent Gonzaga from scoring in transition, but this time, with the clock so short, he was yelling for them to come trap the ball and not let Suggs get a head of steam across half court. They didn’t hear him in time.
At the beginning of March, UCLA was barely an NCAA Tournament team, getting in as one of the last four selections, then surviving two other overtime wins on the way to the Final Four. Whether or not Suggs’ shot went in, the Bruins put together one of the more impressive tournament runs in years. And without them, we’d have never known how deep Gonzaga could dig into its basketball soul.
“There’s no other way we’d rather go out,” Juzang said. “We couldn’t be any prouder. There was nothing that was going to stop us from fighting. I mean, literally to the last play, we were going to go out swinging, so we battled and left everything we had out there. That just feels like such an accomplishment, being able to say you have no regrets. It’s not very common.”
Uncommon and excellent for all of us who had the privilege to watch it.