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Gonzaga stalled, but his rise remains one of college basketball’s amazing stories

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INDIANAPOLIS – Gonzaga was 40 minutes away from asserting himself among the great teams of college basketball. The first undefeated team in 45 years, the first national championship in program history, only two games in the entire season decided by single-digit numbers. Possibly a generation team.

Everything was within reach at 9:20 a.m. on Monday evening. At 9:30 a.m. it was out the window.

With a flurry of Baylor 3 pointers and offensive ricochets in the first five minutes, everything was suddenly out of reach. The bears had climbed 10 on the initial media timeout and led the rest of the way to an 86-70 win in the final game of the 2021 NCAA men’s basketball tournament, with the exception of 90 seconds.

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“It’s really, really difficult to end a storybook season,” said Gonzaga’s manager Mark Few. “Of course we are all disappointed here, but as I told the guys, you make it this far and you go 31-0 into the last, the last 40 minutes of the season, there is absolutely nothing you should ever do yourself feel bad [about]. And they’ll look back on this season as time goes by as something just amazing and unbelievable. “

Gonzaga couldn’t line up a long run all night and struggled to contain Baylor’s grandiose backcourt of Davion Mitchell, Jared Butler and MaCio Teague on one end and make premature turnovers or miss open shots on the other end.

Few have tried everything. The Zags switched to a zone for a few possessions, and it worked. Baylor coach Scott Drew then sent Teague to the center of the zone, Teague scored seven direct points, and the experiment was over. An 8-2 run in the second half cut Baylor’s lead to nine, but the Bears responded with a 15-4 run to close the door for good.

“We just ran into a team tonight and that was clearly the attacker,” said Few. “I think that definitely got us back on our heels on both ends. They are obviously more athletic than us on the fringes. But I thought we might find some advantages too, and we just weren’t.” quite able to do that … you were just in it. “

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Jalen Suggs converts the and-1 and walks straight up to the Gonzaga fans to try and get them going.

For the second time in five years, Gonzaga has lagged a step behind a national championship. In the previous title game, the Zags fell victim to one of the sport’s blue blood cells in North Carolina. On Monday, the Bulldogs fell victim to a program similar to that of the past two decades.

“It’s obviously a feeling these guys never had to deal with,” said Few. “But I think nature probably did it tonight – I mean, it’s not easy, but as a coach you just try to give them as much perspective as you can. And as usually happens with everything, The Time will give them the best perspective. “

Rather than be remembered as one of the best teams of the last half century, Gonzaga will attend the same conversation as 1991 UNLV and 2015 Kentucky. Absolutely dominant regular times, preferred to cut the nets but not a national champion.

“You really forget what it’s like to lose,” said Senior Corey Kispert. “And every time it happens, it doesn’t feel good. And luckily, I haven’t had very many of them in my career, whether in the regular season or in the tournament. … I’ll remember that for one long time. “

Less than 25 years ago, the Gonzaga government almost made a decision that would have made the Bulldogs’ rise to a national powerhouse impossible. In the summer of 1998, the school was in the midst of a budget crisis, enrollment stagnated, and the future powers sought a way to cut spending.

One option on the table: to drop the sports programs from Division I to Division III. The school would have saved more than a million dollars on scholarships and travel alone.

“I spent the whole summer trying to save us,” Gonzagas sporting director Mike Roth told ESPN last season. “But I also pointed out to some people that we as Department III have no chance of ever helping this university from a national or even regional perspective. So we survived at that time. … But we did it, and that was the summer of ’98. And then March ’99 rolls around and we won a few games. “

Jalen Suggs, Corey Kispert and the Zags were overwhelmed against Baylor from the start. Jamie Squire / Getty Images

In his sophomore year under Dan Monson, Gonzaga started his run from annual Cinderella to one of the best programs in college basketball. The Zags went to the Elite Eight as a 10-seed before Monson moved to Minnesota in late July – just three months after signing a 10-year deal with Gonzaga.

Roth promoted Few to replace Monson, and Gonzaga rattled off two more NCAA appearances on the second weekend as a double-digit seed.

“We’re going to Sweet 16. You know what? This next freshman class, our biggest ever,” said Roth. “We’re going back to Sweet 16 next year, you know what? Freshman class, biggest ever. Biggest again next year.”

It’s called The Flutie Effect, and it dates back to Doug Flute’s Hail Mary Pass and Boston College’s 1984 win over Miami. Gonzaga is now a branded school in the US and perhaps next to an arena the size of the Carrier Dome or the Rupp Arena. The Bulldogs have everything the biggest basketball programs in the country have to offer. Twenty years ago, the program was struggling for money just to have a second full-time assistant coach. Now the idea that few will travel to North Carolina to replace Roy Williams has been puzzled and instantly shot down in college basketball circles this past weekend.

“I always tell everyone at the end of the year, when I’m alone in a river in Montana, Idaho or Alaska, you start laughing alone, where we were in ’89, ’90 where we are now”, said only a few on the Saturday after the Bulldogs beat UCLA. “It’s incredible. Atmospheres and events like this.”

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Gonzaga’s coach Mark Few talks about his team’s progress to the Final Four and the close ties of the entire squad.

You have won at least 30 games in five consecutive seasons and advanced to at least the Sweet 16 in six consecutive NCAA tournaments. After Monday evening, however, the Zags are still missing one thing that will consolidate them in the elite of the sport: a national championship.

Without it, they will continue to hear the same calls they hear every year. You don’t play anyone after December. They would not be the same in the Big Ten or in the ACC. You fall short when it comes down to it. While most of this is misguided and Gonzaga doesn’t mind anyway, it won’t stop until they reach the top of the mountain.

But Gonzaga will be back and the Zags were voted # 1 as early as the early 25s of the preseason. They continue to take steps towards the elite of the elite each season. Jalen Suggs was the top-ranked recruit in program history, and he will likely be Gonzaga’s first top 5 NBA draft pick since Adam Morrison 15 years ago. Gonzaga is also the favorite for Chet Holmgren, the # 1 recruit. That’s the kind of thing only the cream of the crop of the sport can consistently do.

It might not be David transforming into Goliath, but it’s the closest we’ve seen in college basketball in a long time. Instead of sneaking up on teams as brave Cinderellas two decades ago, they are now being shocked by an underdog in the NCAA tournament.

With that in mind, Monday night was perhaps as big a sign as any that the Zags are a college basketball powerhouse. All you have to do is take the final step.

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Melinda Martin