The game everyone wanted was not everything or anything anyone thought it would be—probably not even the Baylor Bears, who in their wildest dreams could not have come up with a more feasibly dominant script. Gonzaga didn’t quite tuck tail, but there was hardly a point in time on Monday night where it looked like an undefeated juggernaut. Factually, it is no longer.
By 86–70 score, Baylor dotted its first men's Final Four in 71 years with the program’s first championship, fulfilling Scott Drew’s 18-year pledge to revive a fallen program. The Bears deserved it. There was little question. They came out swinging. From the very first possession of the game—which included Mark Vital rebounding his own misses twice—the Bears established control. The chaos they created was stunning. Over the course of an unbeaten season, Gonzaga hadn’t seen anything close.
Baylor opened on a 21–5 run, gradually stretching the lead to 19 points, born from aggressive defense and a lot of hard work from Davion Mitchell. The Bears racked up deflections, dominated the offensive glass, gave up nothing easy, and buried shots. Gonzaga couldn’t work the ball in to Drew Timme. Jalen Suggs picked up two early fouls. This was the blueprint. Toward the end of the half, Mark Few pulled out a 2–3 zone, which Baylor handled by letting MaCio Teague (who racked up 14 first-half points) operate around the foul line.
By halftime, as Gonzaga does, it'd managed a minor run and cut the lead to 10. To do the thing, the Zags would have to match the biggest comeback in men's championship history (Kentucky trailed Utah by 10 in 1998 and flipped the script). But the first 20 minutes were the only half, over the course of a remarkable season, that Mark Few’s Bulldogs were worn out in full backpedal.
"They beat us in every facet of the game tonight and deserve all the credit," Bulldogs coach Mark Few said afterward.
Maybe that was the only way this was going to happen—the psychic shock imposed by an experienced, hardened team that had been through most everything a strange year had to offer. Baylor was 26–4 before COVID-19 ended the 2019–20 season. It was undefeated before COVID-19 hit the team in February. It lost to Oklahoma State by nine in the Big 12 tournament semifinals. Somewhere along the way, the mojo came back.
Gonzaga had shot 16 free throws to Baylor’s four with 15 minutes left and still trailed by 11. The Bears attacked with ball screens and pulled Timme away from the paint. The Zags regained composure and briefly cut the lead to single digits, 58–49, with 14 minutes left. Baylor promptly ripped off another run capped with a block by Vital, leading to a wide-open transition three by Adam Flagler that stretched the lead back to 16 points. Things had unraveled.
"I always felt like we were the aggressor and we were always, I call it attack mode," said Few. "And we just ran into a team tonight that was, they were the aggressor, clearly. So I think that put us back definitely on our heels on both ends."
Jared Butler paced the Bears with 22 points, Teague with 19, Mitchell with 15 and Adam Flagler with 13, the deepest backcourt in the country living up to its billing. Suggs settled in and finished with 22 points for Gonzaga. The Zags actually outshot Baylor, 51% to 45%. The difference was split on the glass and in the margins, with commanding, timely shooting, and a group that refused to let up.
“Everything happened for a reason in my eyes,” Mark Vital told Sports Illustrated in an interview last week. “Everything that happened to us, from COVID, to guys getting real, real sick, some guys still catching their wind now, we got to. It's manifested for us to do that, you know?
“It's the law of attraction, bro. Everything we're putting out there, we gotta get it back.”
The Bears got it back. They made sure of it.