April 11, 2021

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Baylor overwhelms Gonzaga, ends Bulldogs’ perfect season to win first men’s basketball national title

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INDIANAPOLIS — Nearly an hour after Baylor captured its first men’s basketball national title through an 86-70 pummeling of Gonzaga on Monday at Lucas Oil Stadium, Bears coach Scott Drew sat on a dais with a Coca-Cola in his hand, the championship net around his neck and a smile on his face.

“First and foremost, I want to thank God for blessing us with this opportunity tonight,” Drew said after the game. “I know the guys have worked really hard. And I’m so happy they get a chance to celebrate now. At the same time, I feel for Coach [Mark] Few and his team because they’re such class acts. And Coach Few is a Hall of Fame coach and an unbelievable guy. A better person than he is a coach. And you hate when friends aren’t feeling good.”

The buildup to Monday’s contest suggested the favored Gonzaga squad would shoot the final scene of its Disney movie by winning the national title and completing the first perfect season in 45 years. Instead, the greatest chapter of Baylor’s tale was written.

When he arrived in 2003, Drew was in his early 30s, tasked with a rebuild job unlike any in college basketball history. Baylor player Carlton Dotson had just been charged with murdering teammate Patrick Dennehy. Then former Baylor head coach Dave Bliss was caught on tape telling players to paint Dennehy as a drug dealer to hide illicit payments and other NCAA violations within the program.

Before Drew’s third season, the NCAA dropped the hammer and banned Baylor from playing nonconference games.

To fill his roster that year, he held open tryouts. The team finished 4-13.

“Well, obviously, going into every game being 30- or 40-point underdogs and half your team walk-ons, and you know as a coach, if we can just keep it close, keep it within 20 by the first half or 10,” Drew said. “But really credit those guys who won [four] games that year. They laid the foundation. Those guys have stayed with the program and helped support these guys. And that’s what you love. Over 18 years, there’s so many people that put in hard work and sweat.”

On Monday night, there was confetti covering the court that had been the stage for a program’s ultimate achievement, illustrating its journey from afterthought to champion.

Baylor made rapid progress after its challenging early years under Drew and quickly became a threat in college basketball. In 2010, Baylor reached the Elite Eight, just five years after the NCAA had slashed its schedule in half.

A few years ago, Drew led a tour of his team’s relatively new practice facility. To unlock the doors, he put his hand on a fancy scanner.

Inside, there were large TVs above each player’s stall, which also featured video game systems. There was a massive theater screen for film sessions, and there were cold tubs for postgame recovery.

“Don’t say too much about that,” Drew said about the amenities then. “I don’t really want too many people to know.”

At the time, the thought of another team copying the blueprint of his team’s facility in the middle of the nationwide arms race worried Drew. After Baylor’s win over Gonzaga in the national title game, however, Drew might have every team in the country searching for ways to emulate his program.

It’s not just the win. It’s the history attached to Baylor’s first national championship.

The Bears dominated — and never trailed — against an undefeated Gonzaga squad aiming to complete the first perfect season since 1976. They didn’t hit a buzzer-beater or get the win on a few questionable calls. They kicked Gonzaga’s butt and stole its buzz. Few didn’t have any answers for Jared Butler, MaCio Teague, Adam Flagler and Davion Mitchell, who combined to finish with 69 points and a variety of dazzling highlights.

Butler, who scored 22 points and drained four 3-pointers, won the Final Four Most Outstanding Player award.

Gonzaga shot 51% from the field but couldn’t overcome its turnovers (14) and Baylor’s second-chance opportunities (16 offensive rebounds, 16 second-chance points).The Bears made 44% of their 3-pointers. They also won every individual matchup.

Baylor was just better than Gonzaga, as the Bears completed one of the most impressive runs in recent NCAA tournament history — and the Bulldogs became the fifth team since 1976 to enter the tourney with an undefeated record but fail to win the title.

The confetti, the cameras, the fans and the city itself were all preparing for a historic moment. And they all got what they’d anticipated … just with another team.

A year after winning 23 games in a row and likely entering as a top seed in the NCAA tournament had it not been canceled, Baylor brought back every key player who contributed to that run.

While they started strong by winning their first 18 games this season, the Bears were mostly overshadowed by Gonzaga, which seemed capable of ending the campaign as the first team since the 1975-76 Indiana Hoosiers — and the first team since the NCAA tournament expanded to 64 teams in 1985 — to complete a perfect season.

Plus, Baylor’s sluggish return from a three-week pause due to COVID-19 protocols wasn’t encouraging.

After a poor performance against a subpar Iowa State team and losses to Kansas in the regular season and then Oklahoma State in the Big 12 tournament, it was fair to question if Baylor had lost something while it was sidelined without the ability to complete full practices.

Drew, however, told ESPN the early loss to Oklahoma State in the Big 12 tournament helped his team refocus and prepare for this run.

While the aftermath of Monday’s matchup will likely center on Gonzaga missing its shot at history and the impact on a program that seemed destined for an unblemished season, what unfolded for Baylor was equally rich because the Bears also have an underdog story.

Baylor ended the 2020-21 season as the best team in America and a champion. It earned that victory over a team that had not lost all season. Gonzaga appeared to be one of the game’s great juggernauts.

On Monday, however, a coach who once had to comb his campus for walk-ons celebrated his program’s first national championship.

That’s the story.

“Our team,” Drew said, “has been special.”

2021-04-06 12:50:59

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