INDIANAPOLIS – As the final seconds of the first overtime period ticked away at Lucas Oil Stadium late Saturday, another extra period seemed all but certain. Most of the crowd welcomed five more minutes. In fact, they would have begged for it. Who wouldn’t? This was Gonzaga, with its undefeated season hanging in the balance. And UCLA, deep into an unexpected NCAA run. March at its most mad.
The Bruins had just tied the score at 90 when Gonzaga coach Mark Few elected not to call timeout. Bulldogs guard Jalen Suggs dribbled past halfcourt, made use of some nifty footwork and launched an off-balance, running and yet incredibly pure triple from beyond the top of the key. It was the kind of shot that every person who ever played basketball in their driveway growing up imagines taking—and making. Clock ticking down. 3 … 2 … 1 … with a bid for the NCAA men’s final at stake.
Suggs didn’t stop there, though. As the ball hung in the air for what felt like a lifetime, he knew. Knew it was good. Knew he had won. Knew he had vaulted Gonzaga back into the only game—the NCAA final—the now-mighty, now-major power program had never won. As the ball dropped, so did mouths, as fans screamed and Suggs, well, Suggs ran toward the tables that lined the baseline. He looked like Michael Jordan after hitting that epic NBA Finals jumper over Craig Ehlo.
Suggs leapt atop the table and started tapping his chest and pumping his fists. Right there, the toughest decision he had ever made—turning down a football scholarship at Ohio State, choosing the court over of gridiron—was worth it. Because Suggs had Gonzaga, and because Gonzaga had Suggs, the Bulldogs topped UCLA, 93–90, advancing to the second title game in program history. They will play Baylor, formidable Baylor, on Monday night. And if they triumph, they will complete the first undefeated season in men’s college basketball in 45 years.
For a minute there, as the Bulldogs dueled the Bruins down the stretch, as UCLA scoring machine Johnny Juzang poured in 29 points to continue his march this March, sports again felt normal. It was possible to forget COVID-19, briefly, even with cardboard cut-outs standing in for fans, the teams confined to the same hotel, the masks worn across so many faces and the ghost town-feel to a normally bustling event.
Normal, to a point. Because then there was Suggs, the transcendent freshman who picked Gonzaga for his one-year stopover en route to the NBA lottery. This was Kris Jenkins winning the NCAA title for Villanova. This was Duke’s Christian Laettner’s catch-and-shoot against Kentucky. Suggs’s shot—his last-second, off-balance, miracle shot—should at least land in the same neighborhood. “I knew it was in,” he admitted. “Oh, my God. I don’t know. I don’t know. I’ve always wanted to run up on the table like Kobe and D-Wade.”
And here’s the thing: it still might be tied for Suggs’s most-epic sequence on Saturday night alone.
The other candidate stemmed from a sequence late in the second half. The Bruins beat the Bulldogs badly on a pick-and-roll, and forward Cody Riley took a pass inside and went up for what looked like an easy score. Instead, Suggs recovered, blocking the shot from behind, and not only did he block the shot, but he recovered it. Suggs then took two dribbles—same as he would in overtime—only this time, he slung a one-handed bounce pass through traffic, reminding the world that he won a state football championship as a quarterback in high school. The pass even appeared to carry a little spin.
The Block happened with 2:01 left on the game clock. The Pass followed at 1:57. In four seconds, Suggs had altered both this national semifinal and college basketball history. Drew Timme, perhaps Gonzaga’s best player in this NCAA tournament, took the spinning ball in stride and slammed home a dunk, extending both arms and blowing kisses to the crowd. Had The Sequence not unfolded exactly that way, the Zags might not have made it to OT. Timme wouldn’t have had a chance to drop 25 points, including the first three overtime baskets. And Suggs, well, Suggs wouldn’t have launched himself into tournament lore.
More about the shot that Suggs will watch and be asked about for the rest of his life: UCLA coach Mike Cronin said afterward that he had tried to get his team’s attention before Gonzaga inbounded. He knew how he had taught them to get back, keep the offense in front of them. But he also knew that precious few seconds remained on the clock, and in that exact situation, he wanted his team to trap the ball, to suffocate Suggs before he could find an open look—even one that Cronin called a “bank shot from halfcourt.” Alas, the Bruins never saw Cronin waving his arms like a caffeinated air traffic controller near the bench. Let the last shot go, he told his team in a locker room filled with tears.
Asked after if this marked the single best tournament game he’d ever been a part of, Cronin sighed over Zoom. “That’s a tough one, buddy,” he allowed. “I’d say no, ‘cause we didn’t win.”
While Baylor bolstered its championship résumé by bludgeoning Houston in the first game here on Saturday night, the way Gonzaga won, the tight nature of the game, the opponent seeded 11th—all cast unnecessary doubt on the Zags’ title chances. None of that matters. For one, UCLA rounded into top form at exactly the right time. The Bruins had to beat Michigan State just to make the main NCAA field. They beat the best No. 2 seed in Alabama and a No. 1 seed in Michigan—and they played Gonzaga closer than any Bulldogs opponent this season.
More pertinent, though, is that Saturday’s instant classic proved that Gonzaga could win in numerous ways, behind myriad players. Guard Joel Ayayi may have almost washed out of Spokane in his freshman season, but he carried the Zags in the first half and scored 22 points and grabbed six boards against UCLA. Timme spent some of Saturday in foul trouble, but still managed several mustache/biceps/kisses blown celebrations. Forward Corey Kispert struggled by his high standards in shooting, but don’t expect that to carry over to Monday night.
Then, Suggs. Always, Suggs. He scored 16, snagged five boards and dished six assists. He played like the No. 1 pick in the NBA draft. He shot like Jenkins, beat the clock like Laettner and celebrated like Jordan. Not bad for his 31st college basketball game. All wins, of course.
So continued Gonzaga’s march toward perfection, toward becoming the first men’s team since the 1975–76 Indiana Hoosiers to cap a season with a goose-egg in the loss column. Until Saturday, the Zags had made it look relatively simple. Their last opponent to not lose by double digits was West Virginia, way back on Dec. 2. They spanked Norfolk State by 43 to start the NCAA tournament, then ran through Oklahoma, Creighton and USC with ease. For anyone who wanted to diminish the Zags for playing supposedly-lesser competition in the West Coast Conference, they actually averaged more points on a per-possession basis against their NCAA foes. “From where we were in 1989–90 to where we are now,” Few said, “it’s unbelievable.”
Along the way, Gonzaga presented an antidote to a men’s college basketball landscape laden with low-scoring affairs that lacked the poetic grace the Bulldogs displayed in 2020–21. Watching the Zags felt like viewing an entirely different sport, with their offensive efficiency and spacing and ball movement. This was COVID-19 entertainment at its finest. They looked more like an NBA team, or at least your favorite college player’s favorite team to watch. As Suggs whispered a few times in his press conference, oh my God and I can’t believe that happened, he meant The Shot, of course. But he could just as easily have been referring to this season or Gonzaga’s improbable, two-decade rise.
Earlier this season, Bulldogs legend and current broadcaster Adam Morrison said it was a shame that COVID-19 meant the home fans couldn’t watch the joy that is Suggs’s game. It wasn’t more important than what had happened in the world, and yet, it was significant, because Morrison saw Suggs as that good. Over beers in Few’s office last winter, Morrison suggested Bradley Beal as an NBA comparison. He may have undersold.
Anyway, as UCLA-Gonzaga became a Final Four matchup, anyone who didn’t like Gonzaga tried to remind Morrison of his Sweet 16 loss to the Bruins in 2006. You know, the one where he cried after. No shame in that, for God’s sake. But here were the Bruins and the Bulldogs, NCAA tournament, so much on the line. And there was Suggs, the player Morrison had tabbed as special, as the difference-maker, doing exactly as Morrison had predicted. It felt a touch full circle, didn’t it? Except the loop has not yet closed. The Zags, their supernatural freshman, their mustachioed forward and their fly-fishing coach—they all still have a championship to win.