Gonzaga still is undefeated. The Zags no longer are unchallenged.
Although their many critics will spin this as evidence that Mark Few’s team isn’t all that great — despite a 26-0 record, a No. 1 ranking in the NET and KenPom computer ratings and now both the regular-season and tournament championships of the West Coast Conference — Gonzaga’s 88-78 victory over BYU late Tuesday was its best possible result.
The Zags made it through 25 games of the regular season without a loss. Monday, they cruised through the semifinal of the West Coast Conference Tournament. Only once in all of that did they fail to win by a double-digit margin. Their streak of consecutive double-figure victories reached 22 games, something no team had managed in the past 60 years of major-college basketball.
They expected a more daunting test from BYU in the WCC final than they had encountered in a while. They surely did not expect to surrender 53 points in the first half and trail by a dozen at halftime, and still by nine midway through the second half.
The Zags did not panic, though. They survived.
“Coach Few gave me a hug and said congrats and said, ‘This is the best thing that could have happened to us,’” All-America wing Corey Kispert told ESPN. “The resiliency showed, especially from our young guys. Just the competitive fire we showed in the second half — that’s the stuff you can’t teach. We could have easily rolled over and let those guys dump-truck us for the rest of the game. But it’s the true mark of a champion that you can come back from being down by so much.”
The Zags remained perfect because All-America freshman Jalen Suggs seized the moment, and that’s exactly the sort of ingredient they’ll need to become a champion: an NBA-level talent willing and able to take on the pressure of the biggest moments and disarm whatever defense is aimed in his direction.
Suggs played a bit indifferently in the early minutes of the second half, trying to will Gonzaga out of its deficit with early-clock 3-point attempts. Then he got serious.
There was a crisp 3-pointer at the 7:56 mark that cut the deficit to 68-64. He grabbed a rebound and tossed a long pass to backcourt partner Joel Ayayi for a layup that put the Zags in front for the first time since the game’s early stages. He blocked a shot with six minutes left. When BYU pushed back into a tie, Suggs drove hard to his right hand and scored a layup over two Cougars defenders to make it 75-73 with four minutes left. Gonzaga held that lead to the end, and it grew as Suggs made consecutive 3-pointers. He finished with 23 points and five assists.
Eventually, despite battling for so long in such a tight game, Gonzaga pushed its lead to double digits and extended its record streak of such wins to 23 games.
“This is a big deal, and it puts us in some incredible company,” Few told reporters following the win. “It’s a heck of an accomplishment, a heck of an accomplishment in lieu of these atmospheres that have been so stale and sterile and lend itself to defensive efforts like we had in the first half, quite frankly.”
Gonzaga will become only the fifth team to enter the NCAA Tournament with a perfect record since Indiana finished a perfect 32-0 in 1976, joining Indiana State in 1979, UNLV in 1991, Wichita State in 2014 and Kentucky in 2015.
“It’s hard not to think about,” Suggs said. “But I think we all did a good job of keeping focus. But at some point, you kind of got to acknowledge how special of a team and how special a ride we’re on right now. I think the best part about it is we’re all excited for it, we’re all happy to keep it going, but we’re all ready to get back to work and get ready for Indy.”
What all those since the Hoosiers have in common: They fell short of winning it all.
UNLV lost to Duke in the Final Four specifically because the Rebels so rarely were challenged that they did not have the tools to react when the opposition refused to relent. Everyone else had, at some point, dissolved against the relentless pressure of the Vegas defense. Duke continued to advance and put game pressure on the Rebels.
Given that Gonzaga had won its WCC games by an average margin of 24 points and blown out such high-major powers as Kansas (by 12), Iowa (by 11) and Virginia (by 23), it was beginning to seem the Zags might make it into March Madness with the same lack of awareness about how to deal with adversity. The coaches can arrange the technical situations in practice — down five, 2:30 on the clock, dig yourselves out of it — but they cannot manufacture the tension inherent in a tight game.
A team must live that to understand it. Now Gonzaga has. This is not good news for the rest of college basketball.
The Zags don’t just have a perfect record. They are now perfectly prepared for what comes next.