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Sunday, April 11, 2021

Baylor completes long turnaround, wins first national championship

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Scott Drew has done the unthinkable twice in his coaching career. First, he took a job leading Baylor University’s basketball program when it looked like no one in their right mind would touch it. Then he built and fortified it for 18 years, leading the Bears to their first national championship April 5 at Lucas Oil Stadium.

Baylor (28-2) brought the hammer and kept swinging in an 86-70 unraveling of Gonzaga (31-1), spoiling a perfect season from the team considered all season to be the best in the country and the No. 1 overall seed in the NCAA Tournament.

Baylor opened the game on a 9-0 run that included four offensive rebounds and four second-chance points. The Bears made their first five 3-pointers on their way to a 26-10 lead.

“Electrifying,” said Baylor junior guard Jared Butler, named the most outstanding player of the Final Four with a team-high 22 points in the title game. “Especially in that type of moment, a big game. And everybody stepped up. Everybody was clicking on all cylinders. That’s what it takes to win.”

Later, there was sophomore guard Adam Flagler driving into the lane off of a handoff and drawing two defenders so he could lob the ball over the top to sophomore forward Jonathan Tchamwa Tchatchoua for an alley-oop that left the basket shaking as Gonzaga inbounded the ball early in the second half.

There was senior forward Mark Vital blocking Gonzaga senior forward Corey Kispert’s layup a few minutes later, when Gonzaga was trying to get within single digits, and Flagler drilling a 3-pointer from the right wing to stretch Baylor’s lead to 67-51.

“The more aggressive team makes more 3’s,” Kispert said on a night he shot 2 of 7 from behind the arc and had 12 points. “The more aggressive team gets more rebounds. And they punched us in the mouth right at the get-go. And it took a long, long time for us to recover and start playing them even again. But then it was too late.”

The smaller jabs from Baylor — seven steals, 16 offensive rebounds, 16 second-chance points — are why Gonzaga, despite making 51% of its shots, hardly felt threatening after the Bears’ initial surge.

The Bulldogs were slow to find their feet — they didn’t get their first basket until the 15:28 mark — but once they did, it looked like the same offense that carried Gonzaga to 31-0.

The Zags lagged behind Baylor’s hot shooting from outside but still went into the locker room shooting 55% from the floor. Sophomore forward Drew Timme was the most consistent part of the Bulldogs’ attack in the first 20 minutes, scoring 10 points on 4-of-5 shooting.

That’s why the Bulldogs found themselves down only 10 at halftime, despite trailing by as much as 19.

Baylor’s defense, led by junior Defensive Player of the Year Davion Mitchell, instead put constant pressure on Gonzaga each trip down the floor with deflected passes, especially early.

Freshman guard Jalen Suggs, who put the Zags in the title game with a buzzer-beater in the semifinal against UCLA, didn’t score until he hit a layup at the 5:30 mark, but he finished the game with 22 points.

What Gonzaga didn’t have — despite the record and statistics and heroics — was the ability to run and shoot with the likes of Baylor for 40 minutes in a game that should have been a rematch after the two teams had to cancel a matchup exactly four months ago, on Dec. 5, 2020, because of COVID-19.

“They were just so much more aggressive,” Gonzaga head coach Mark Few said of the early deficit his team wasn’t able to overcome. “We haven’t played like that this year. They literally busted us out of anything we could possibly do on offense.”

The Bulldogs worked the deficit down to 13 with 6:10 to play, their last gasp, but Baylor went on a 7-2 run and it was too late to reverse the inevitable.

That’s when Baylor’s sideline was visibly giddy, the clock ticking with a title in grasp.

“Coaching is like being a parent,” Drew said. “And Christmas time, you see the kids opening up presents. You see them excited, you’re excited.”

No matter what, one coach was walking away from Lucas Oil Stadium with his program’s first national title. Gonzaga most recently went to the championship game in 2017 but lost to North Carolina.

That it was Drew means one of college basketball’s most unlikely comeback stories has reached its crest, and who knows how long it might stay there.

When Drew took the Baylor job in 2003, the Bears were under investigation from the NCAA following the murder of sophomore Patrick Dennehy by teammate Carlton Dotson. The investigation brought up many infractions and forced the resignation of head coach Dave Bliss.

The school self-imposed three years of probation and scholarship limitations, along with other penalties from the NCAA.

As the green and yellow confetti settled on the “Unity” court at Lucas Oil Stadium after Baylor’s win, Drew reminisced — adrenaline and all — on what the last 18 years have been like and what it means to be on top of college basketball after dragging it there from the bottom.

He said screenwriter John Lee Hancock, a Baylor graduate, promised a movie if the Bears won a national championship.

“We’re getting a movie!” Drew yelled.

Joking or not, Baylor’s 18-year ride deserves more recognition than one night can offer.

Contact staff writer Tyler Fenwick at 317-762-7852. Follow him on Twitter @Ty_Fenwick.

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