All of college basketball wanted to see Gonzaga tested.
UCLA tested the Bulldogs.
Together, they tested the frontier of sports excellence.
We bow in the direction of the Bruins. The late bloomers from the Pac-12 Conference were the acme of underdog resolve, going from First Four to Final Four, from 11th seed nearly to the roof of the hoops world.
We bow in the direction of the Zags.
By now you’ve seen several times the shot in the NCAA tourney’s first semifinal game that saved Gonzaga in overtime, 93-90 (box), because the episode was so intense it would have permeated your home and head even if you weren’t watching, or awake.
With 3.3 seconds left in a game abruptly tied at 90-90, after UCLA’s irrepressible Johnny Juzang put back his own miss, an incredible thing happened.
Zags coach Mark Few didn’t call a timeout.
What? You thought Jalen Suggs’ 40-footer, a banker at the buzzer, was a big deal? Nah. He makes them all the time in practice.
“I knew when I shot it,” he said, “it was going in.”
The larger deal was that a big-time college basketball coach didn’t insert himself into the action. The profession tends to draw control freaks whose impulses are to try to grab every puppy in the litter when the refrigerator door opens.
“I don’t like to call time out in that situation,” Few said.
The best coaches know that the best coaching is done in October, November and December, not April, because the late hours in the early season are when coach and player begin to trust one another.
In the most critical moment of an undefeated season as the hoops world was breathless anticipating an upset, Few trusted Suggs. A freshman. How big is that?
“I think you can make an open-court play better before they set up their defense,” Few said. “But I was wondering if we we’re gonna get the ball out of the net (quickly enough). I thought we might need a timeout there, so I’m getting ready to kind of yell at the guys.”
No! Don’t do it! Resist!
“Then they got it in, and I knew we were good because it was in Jalen’s hands.”
If there is a place higher in the next NBA draft than No. 1, Suggs just ascended to it. The 6-4 guard from St. Paul, MN., became the perambulating paradigm for the bromide offered regularly by an earlier coach at UCLA, John Wooden.
Be quick. But don’t hurry.
As you saw (or felt), Suggs took the in-bounds pass and used three dribbles to cover 40 feet. With the calm of a neurosurgeon, he went straight up with the textbook trey.
The shot hit hard enough to bruise the backboard. It killed the Bruins.
“We haven’t had many games like this,” Few said, “but we’ve worked probably more on in-game situations this year than than I ever have. Just because I knew we needed that.
“And he just . . . Jalen makes shots. He’s got that magical aura. It’s been crazy this year how many (last-second) shots he’s made in practice. So I felt pretty good.”
So did Suggs. After the horn, he completed the full Kobe Bryant Mamba Mentality mandate by leaping upon the nearest table and spreading his arms.
“I’ve always wanted to run up on the table like Kobe and D-Wade,” Suggs said. “Man, that (shot) is something that you practice on your mini-hoop as a kid, or in the gym, just messing around. And to be able to do that, it’s crazy.”
Crazy doesn’t come close. UCLA probed and pestered the more talented Zags and stayed close all evening — or as TV commentator Charles Barkley put it, “snug as me in an airplane restroom.”
Juzang had a game-high 29 points, but took his aggression too far, barely, in a tied game with 1.1 seconds left in regulation.
Drew Timme, the Zags’ stalwart post man playing with four fouls, stood his ground and took Juzang’s charge. Basketball tradition says such a foul never gets called in the final seconds to decide a game. But the call was correct, and it provided five more minutes of a spectacular contest for which hoops fans yearned, in a tourney rich in blowouts and mundane play.
Monday night in Indy, the Zags get to take their 31-0 record against the 27-2 Baylor Bears, the team seeded just below them when the 68-field was drawn up three weeks ago. Best against best.
Since 1999, Gonzaga has the best record in Division I, 653-131, mostly in the weak West Coast Conference. In the past five years, Gonzaga is 159-13, a winning percentage of .924. Second is Villanova, 134-31 with a .812 winning percentage.
Division I programs with 600 wins since 1999
But all that regular season success, followed by 22 consecutive NCAA tourney appearances, tends to get lost in the void created by the absence of a championship.
Now, the Zags have been tested. They survived. They were confirmed to have a “magical aura” among them.
If the magic carries them one more time, they owe it to UCLA coach Mick Cronin, in the newly created tradition of great West Coast college basketball, to call with the offer of a best-of-five series.