INDIANAPOLIS (AP) — Corey Kispert greeted his coach with a hug on the sideline as he checked out for the last time, then soon wrapped his arms around Jalen Suggs as his teammate broke down in tears.
Disbelief and reality had set in: Gonzaga's push for perfection had fallen short, stopped by an aggressive Baylor team that never let the Bulldogs find the often seamless execution that had carried them all season.
The Bulldogs — who had seemingly had everything clicking from the season’s opening tip — ended the season with an out-of-synch and disjointed showing in Monday night’s 86-70 loss to the Bears in the NCAA championship game.
Gone was their shot at becoming the first unbeaten national champion since Indiana in 1976, as well as the program's push for that breakthrough first title.
“You try to do everything within your power to flip the switch,” coach Mark Few said. "But yeah, it was tough. When they're consistently just more aggressive on both ends, it was hard to generate rhythm. We'd score a couple of times, we couldn't ever get consecutive stops to kind of close some gaps. Then we didn't help ourselves — we turned the ball over, we missed free throws.”
Gonzaga (31-1) shot 51% but finished with a season-low 70 points after averaging a national-best 91.6 points. Beyond those numbers, though, was the simple fact that the Zags seemed to be struggling to bring everything together in response to a Bears team that tore through Houston in the national semifinals then came out on the attack.
The offense struggled to get clean looks early or make 3-pointers. A reliable defense couldn’t slow the Bears’ 3-point shooting. The Bulldogs couldn’t keep Baylor off the glass and kept committing turnovers, some just by bobbling the ball away on their own.
By midway through the first half, Gonzaga had improbably found itself down 19.
“They're just not letting you do the things you normally do,” Kispert said. “I'm so used to kind of if that happens, we take that punch and move on and kind of get on with the game and fight back really a lot quicker than we did. I'm kind of used to that reaction time being a little quicker.”
Suggs, the star freshman and top NBA draft prospect, had etched his name into tournament lore by banking home a running shot from just across halfcourt to beat UCLA in overtime in an electric national semifinal Saturday night. He opened this game with a missed 3-pointer and then an immediate offensive foul when he ran over a defender.
Minutes later, he took a seat after picking up his second foul as the Bears jumped all over the Zags for a 9-0 lead.
Suggs eventually returned and finished with a team-high 22 points, 15 coming after halftime. The problem was that the Zags never could seemed to get everyone rolling together as they had all season, and it had them staring at a huge deficit just about all night.
Kispert, an Associated Press first-team All-American, didn't get many clean looks and finished with just 12 points and two 3-pointers. Second-teamer Drew Timme also had 12 but got just seven shots while getting into second-half foul trouble and nursing an apparent injury.
Gonzaga made just 5 of 17 3-pointers, their lowest total of the six NCAA Tournament games. And the Zags struggled all night with the Bears playing aggressive defense that implied a lack of fear of being beaten off the dribble.
“They just literally busted us out of anything we could possibly do on offense,” Few said. “We were kind of playing sideways.”
The Zags had been here once before, taking a one-loss team all the way to the final night of the season four years ago before losing to North Carolina. This one will hurt maybe more for a team that won all but two games all year by double-digit margins and had Few within a victory of achieving the national championship he has spent years building toward.
More AP college basketball: https://apnews.com/hub/Collegebasketball and http://www.twitter.com/AP_Top25
Follow Aaron Beard on Twitter at http://www.twitter.com/aaronbeardap