You kept waiting for the dam to break and it never did. Not in the first half. Not deep into the second half. Not even in overtime. UCLA kept trading punches with No. 1 Gonzaga and not backing down.
Surely, the unbeaten Bulldogs were going to make one of its patented runs and pull away. That run never came.
Gonzaga would take the the lead. UCLA would respond with a three. The Bulldogs hit two baskets in a row. The Bruins knock down a tough, fade-away jumper in the lane.
Even when Gonzaga pushed its lead to seven in the second half — its largest of the game — UCLA responded with six points in a row. The Bruins would eventually lead by two with less than three minutes.
It was crunch time for the Bulldogs. They were facing a pressure that hadn’t all year. Not only might they miss out on winning the school’s first national title, they could lose their chance at history by becoming the first team since Indiana in 1976 to finish the season without a loss.
They battled back to tie the game. It would go to overtime and an improbable three-pointer by Jalen Suggs would win the game for Gonzaga 93-90 at the buzzer.
Now comes the big question. Was this a sign of cracks in Gonzaga or was this exactly what the Bulldogs needed before Monday’s national championship showdown with Baylor?
You couldn’t blame the Bulldogs for being a bit overconfident when the game tipped. UCLA was the highest seed to reach the Final Four, matching four others that started the tournament as a No. 11. None of the previous four had won their semifinal game.
Gonzaga, a 14-point favorite, had won 27 consecutive games by double figures. The only one of its 30 previous victories that was by single digits came Dec. 2 against West Virginia.
They quickly found out that this was not going to be an easy night.
There will be no overconfidence Monday night against Baylor. The Bears’ dismantling of Houston in the other national semifinal would have been enough to get Gonzaga’s attention.
With UCLA pushing it all the way, the Bulldogs could feel their tournament in the balance, but Gonzaga can draw strength from how it played down the stretch.
Drew Timme stepped up on a huge defensive play at the end of regulation by drawing a charge then opened overtime with his team’s first six points. Andrew Nembhard hit a clutch three. And then Suggs closed the show.
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They did answer the question about whether they could handle the pressure of the moment. They didn’t back down.
However, there were legitimate concerns raised. UCLA consistently cut through its perimeter defense with Johnny Juzang and Jaime Jaquez Jr. driving the ball to the basket. Cody Riley was often open on pick-and-rolls and consistently hit open jumpers.
Baylor is even more able to exploit these weaknesses. Davion Mitchell’s ability to get into the lane is as good as anyone in the country. The responsibility of stopping him will fall to Suggs. The Bears have more than Mitchell, however. They have a cadre of shooters than can hit threes to create space. It’s possible we see a repeat of this amazing semifinal with both teams going shot for shot.
We should be so lucky. This was a classic on par with Duke’s wins against UNLV in 1991 and Kentucky 1992 and the title game between Villanova and North Carolina in 2016. What distinguishes those games from other memorable ones is that both teams played at such a high level.
Simply put, UCLA brought out the best in Gonzaga. The Bulldogs are still here. But their toughest test might still await.