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2021 NCAA Championship winners and losers: Baylor’s guards shine as Gonzaga misses a chance at history

When Baylor was forced to go three weeks between games in February due to COVID-19 issues and nearly lost to lowly Iowa State in its return, it felt like a chance at history might be slipping through its grasp. The Bears struggled for a few weeks to look like the team that began the season 18-0, and it appeared Gonzaga might be pulling away as the nation’s clear No. 1 team.

But there was just one team still standing in college basketball on Monday night, and it was the Bears, who outlasted Gonzaga 86-70 for the program’s first national title. The Bears entered the NCAA Tournament having registered two losses in their last six games, but they rediscovered their top gear at the right time to knock off a Gonzaga team that entered the national title game at 31-0.

Baylor jumped out to a 29-10 early lead, and the game was essentially even from there. The high-flying Bears never wavered, using a huge rebounding edge and timely shooting to cap a remarkable run for a program that was in shambles less than two decades ago.

Let’s take a look at the three biggest winners and three biggest losers from the championship game on Monday.

Winner: From the depths to the summit

When Scott Drew took the Baylor job before the 2003-04 season, the program was in depths of despair, and having made just one NCAA Tournament since 1950 was the least of Baylor’s worries. Former coach Dave Bliss was forced to resign just three months before the beginning of the season due to NCAA rules issues. In the months before his resignation, Baylor player Patrick Dennehy was killed by a former teammate.

Things were beyond bad, and Drew was handed the keys in that moment with just one season of head coaching experience at Valparaiso under his belt. After nearly two decades of building and polishing, he has Baylor at the sport’s pinnacle, and it’s no fluke. The Bears also spent five weeks at No. 1 last season and would have been in contention to win it all if there had been a 2020 NCAA Tournament. MaCio Teague and Jared Butler tested the NBA draft waters after last season but decided to return, and that decision was rewarded in a historic way. The duo combined for 41 points Monday night.

Loser: Gonzaga’s shot at history

Gonzaga had a chance to become the first undefeated men’s national champion since Indiana in 1976, and after Saturday’s dramatic victory over UCLA in the Final Four, it seemed like the Zags might truly be a team of destiny.

With superstar freshman Jalen Suggs leading the way alongside prolific scorers Corey Kispert and Drew Timme, the Zags demolished almost everyone they played this season. But they fell behind early on Monday and could never recover, marking the second time in the last five seasons the program has fallen one game short of a national title.

Winner: Baylor’s transition gameĀ 

The Zags are the team lauded for their fast break offense and up-tempo pace, but Baylor was the team that thrived in transition on Monday. The Bears converted 14 Gonzaga turnovers into 19 points and regularly found shooters in transition to maximize the output of each possession. Kicking to an open 3-point shooter was often the right move for the Bears considering how well they performed on the offensive boards. Baylor out rebounded Gonzaga 38-22 in total and led 16-5 in offensive rebounding.

Winner: Gonzaga’s zone defense

The Bulldogs went to a zone defense late in the first half, which is a move that runs counter to the program’s fast-paced ethos. Typically, Gonzaga would never intentionally seek to slow the pace. But with Baylor shredding the Bulldogs’ man-to-man defense, a change was necessary. Baylor didn’t exactly go cold, but it stopped scoring in bunches, and that allowed Gonzaga to breathe a little bit and keep within striking distance entering halftime. Eventually, Gonzaga abandoned the zone after Butler hit a couple 3-pointers to begin the second half, and the Zags reverted to man-to-man. But the zone served a purpose by helping Gonzaga get back in the game.

Loser Impact of foul trouble

When Baylor’s Jonathan Tchamwa Tchatchoua went to the bench with four fouls at the 14:43 mark, it left the Bears without a true center. That’s because starting center Flo Thamba was already on the bench with four fouls as well. Thamba eventually fouled out with 8:40 remaining. Gonzaga was impacted by foul trouble as well. Suggs was forced to go to the bench after picking up two quick fouls, and Timme had to take a breather in the second half after picking up his fourth with 11:36 remaining. Ultimately, Baylor’s depth paid off. Their bench was an asset all season, and the Bears won the battle of bench points 21-7 on Monday.

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