Just after 11 p.m. local time in Indianapolis on Saturday night, Gonzaga guard Jalen Suggs gathered an inbounds pass from teammate Corey Kispert with a head of steam, the final Final Four game all knotted at 90. He pounded the ball into the hardwood thrice, twice with his left hand and once with his right, before gathering from near the halfcourt logo and launching. The rest is history.
Suggs’ game-winner to send the Zags to the title game with a 93-90 overtime win vs. UCLA prompted an all-out celebration opposite the team’s baseline. Suggs and teammate Joel Ayayi leapt on to the waist-high table in euphoria. Pandemonium quickly broke out in the moments thereafter. And afterwards, the locker room was filled with waterworks, fist-pumps and — yes — even a handstand from Bulldogs coach Mark Few.
The Zags found their way back in the championship game for the second time in program history. Cause for celebration, indeed.
Yet as they prepare for Monday’s season finale, they are doing so while actively combating a celebratory mood. Not only are they completely cognizant of what’s ahead — a tilt against red-hot Baylor — but they are extra engaged knowing that they are already battling the challenge of preparing for their biggest game of the season on short rest, both mentally and physically. The battle against UCLA spanned more than two hours and was Gonzaga’s first overtime game of the season. Heck, it was the first time all season it has really been tested late in any game.
“There was a tremendous amount of energy expended by our guys,” Few said on Sunday. “I don’t think you can get a more emotional rollercoaster over the course of two hours or whatever it was. And it’s not just that. You get back [to the hotel] and all your family and friends and everybody is reaching out to you, you can’t sleep.”
Few said he told his undefeated Gonzaga Bulldogs that Saturday is behind them, so Sunday is the day to start putting it aside. At least for now.
“We’ve got one more game to gear up for together,” he said. “We’ve got to give it everything we’ve got mentally and physically.”
It’s hard to imagine Baylor’s got a definitive edge going into this game when it comes to preparation. Baylor and Gonzaga played on the same night. But its game ended just after 7 p.m. local time on Saturday. And its game was never really in doubt, as it cruised to a 78-59 win. It puts Gonzaga in a race against the clock to reset and recharge against a Baylor team that has not paid nearly the same tax emotionally or physically that it has since Saturday.
“It’s a lot in 30 hours, but it is what it is,” Few said. “My guys have been great at game preparations all season, so consistent with effort and the attention to detail on game night. So, we’re definitely banking on that.”
Don’t count on Gonzaga’s players taking this challenge lightly. The on-court celebrations, the locker room riot were brief blips in time for this historically great team. They know this next test on deck for Monday really began shortly after Suggs’ bankshot to oust UCLA dropped.
“We had team dinner and then after that, it was already pretty late,” Ayayi said Sunday of Saturday after the game ended. “We all knew it was a quick turnaround and that at the end of the day, the most important game of our careers is coming.”
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