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Tuesday, April 20, 2021

Jalen Suggs Keeps Gonzaga’s Undefeated Season Alive, Sets Up Dream Natty Pairing

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Jalen Suggs celebrates his game-winner against UCLA

Jalen Suggs celebrates his game-winner against UCLAMichael Conroy/Associated Press

INDIANAPOLISEvery once in a great while, there is an “I will always remember where I was when” sports moment.

Gonzaga’s Jalen Suggs just delivered one of those all-timers, banking in a 30-plus-foot heave at the buzzer for a 93-90 overtime win over UCLA in what was easily the greatest NCAA tournament game since at least the 2016 national championship.

Even the cardboard cutouts in Lucas Oil Stadium were screaming after that one.

Suggs’ miraculous bucket kept the undefeated quest intact, and it set up the Gonzaga-Baylor showdown we’ve been waiting for four months to watch.

Not too shabby for a freshman playing in a close game for the first time since early December.

I was just thinking, please, please go in,” said Suggs in his postgame Zoom conference, brandishing a smile that assuredly won’t fade in the slightest until it’s time to get back to business on Monday night. “I don’t want to go to another overtime. I want to get this over with. But I saw something afterwards, ‘Gordon Hayward walked, so Jalen starts to run.’ That was pretty funny.”

The Athletic @TheAthletic

Jalen Suggs’ game-winner called by Gonzaga’s IMG radio team of Tom Hudson and Adam Morrison.

Yes, former @ZagMBB Adam Morrison.

🎥: @briannnnf
https://t.co/ozQDEppxu0

Suggs actually had several gigantic moments late in this instant classic.

With two minutes remaining in regulation, he rose up for a preposterous block on a would-be Cody Riley dunk, corralled the rebound and then dropped an absolute dime of a bounce pass to Drew Timme, who was streaking down the floor for a go-ahead dunk (and obligatory mustache salute to the rafters). That sequence came on UCLA’s first possession after Suggs had a marvelous finish in the paint, pirouetting away from a block for a game-tying bucket.

The Zags needed every bit of his heroics just to get into overtime in a back-and-forth battle for the ages.

A battle, by the way, that only the five hundred or so incessant “U-C! L-A!” chanters in the stands legitimately thought was possible.

Gonzaga was favored by 14. After Baylor took care of Houston earlier in the evening, most of us spent Miley Cyrus’ between-games concert peeking ahead to the presumed clash of No. 1 seeds on Monday night.

But someone forgot to tell UCLA that it was only here to be the next sacrificial lamb on Gonzaga’s undefeated rampage to the title game.

Johnny Juzang continued his outstanding tournament with 29 points for the Bruins. Tyger Campbell only made six field goals, but it felt like at least twice that many, as each one came at a juncture when UCLA desperately needed a momentum-shifting bucket. And Cody Riley must have made more mid-range jumpers tonight than he did in his past 15 games combined.

It wasn’t just Riley, either. Juzang and Jaime Jaquez Jr. were both lethal on the 15-foot shots that went out of style in college hoops a long time ago. The Bruins shot 61.9 percent on two-point attempts, and most of them were from distances that analytics would deem to be “low percentage shots.”

They clearly weren’t low percentage on this night, though, as UCLA repeatedly stifled any attempt by Gonzagawho shot 71.4 percent from inside the arc in its own rightto pull away.

This game featured 19 lead changes and 15 ties, and you could easily convince me those counts were just from the first half—when it often felt like Gonzaga’s fourth-best player, Joel Ayayi, was playing 1-on-5 against the Bruins and somehow holding his own.

“It was quite a chess match going on out there,” said Gonzaga head coach Mark Few after the game. “And, you know, we had the last possession. And like I said, we were lucky enough to hit a 50-footer. So it helps when you have a magical, special guy like Jalen, special at the end of games.”

At no point did this feel like a meeting between the best team in the country and a team that just barely qualified for the NCAA tournament. This was a heavyweight fight chock full of haymakers, and a game that none of us will forget any time soon.

But the best part is this was merely the appetizer.

Perhaps it was the most delicious appetizer of all-time, but because Gonzaga got the W, now we get the Monday night entree between Gonzaga and Baylor.

And, friends, that steak has been dry aging for four full months. It is going to be all sorts of scrumptious.

Jalen Suggs

Jalen SuggsMichael Conroy/Associated Press

In case you’ve somehow both forgotten and missed all of the reminders over the past few weeks, Baylor and Gonzaga were scheduled to square off on the afternoon of Dec. 5. Unfortunately, that game was postponed just a few hours before tipoff because of COVID-19 issues within the Gonzaga program.

Ever since that day, this game has constantly felt like the one that got away.

Gonzaga is still undefeated, now just 40 (or 45, or 50) minutes away from becoming the first undefeated men’s college basketball team since the 1975-76 Indiana Hoosiers. And Baylor was the most recent team to lose that undefeated status, making it all the way until Feb. 27 before suffering its first loss.

Even if they had never been scheduled to face each other, there would have been a palpable, mounting anticipation for a potential national championship clash.

Because they were scheduled to square off and it got taken away from us, it often felt like the only acceptable end to this tournament would be the rematch of the game that never happened.

Would we have enjoyed a UCLA-Baylor national championship? Absolutely. Either the Bruins would have become the unlikeliest national champion in the history of the sport or Scott Drew would have polished off an incredible 18-year turnaround with that Bears program.

But Gonzaga-Baylor is the ideal ending to the first NCAA tournament in two years.

“I think we match up pretty well,” said Baylor’s Jared Butler about a possible matchup with Gonzaga. “They’ve got pros. We’ve got pros. They win a lot of games. We win a lot of games. I think we match up well.”

Preseason No. 1 vs. preseason No. 2 for all the marbles.

One of these programs will be winning its first ever national championship.

Let’s see if it can possibly live up to the hype.

That Suggs buzzer-beater sure set the bar high.

Kerry Miller covers men’s college basketball and college football for Bleacher Report. You can follow him on Twitter, @kerrancejames.

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