BY Art Thiel 06:00AM 04/04/2021

Thiel: The moment that set up the Zags’ winner

In one of the best games in NCAA tourney history, Gonzaga barely kept alive its unbeaten streak. But Jalen Suggs’ 40-footer at the buzzer wasn’t the most unusual moment.

Mark Few did something rare for a big-time college coach. / Gonzaga University

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!

He did.

“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

RANK TEAM W L PCT
1. Gonzaga 653 131 .832
2 Duke 664 149 .819
3 Kansas 656 150 .814
4 Kentucky 607 198 .754

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.

 


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YourThoughts

  • Tim

    Incredible game. I have a feeling we’re in for more fireworks of a similar nature Monday night. Is there a cooler coach in college basketball?

    • art thiel

      No one knows how hard it is to go undefeated until it’s done. I think Baylor saw the G’s can be out-shot.

  • 2nd place is 1st loser

    Great game by the Zags, tip of the cap to the Bruins. They actually played well enough to have won that game. On to Baylor, this should be another hard fought game for the Zags. I predict a win for the Zags. Hopefully this will put to rest the rhetoric of, the Zags play in a weak conference and never play any rated teams. Go Zags.

    • Husky73

      This season, Gonzaga has beaten BYU, Kansas, Auburn, West Virginia, Iowa, Virginia, Oklahoma, Creighton, USC and UCLA.

      • art thiel

        Few every year loads up his non-con calendar with heavies to balance the WCC. Although he has resumed playing UW.

        • Husky73

          In the words of Bryan Adams, “Now it cuts like a knife…”

    • art thiel

      For Few’s sake, I’d like to see burden lift.

  • Kevin Lynch

    The sound the shot made, off the backboard and straight down through the net, was a great part of the moment. An incredible thrill to have such a dramatic game end so instantaneously. Both teams shot 57/58%. Zags owned the low post spins and UCLA the jumpers. I remember hearing Chick Hearn, Lakers broadcaster, call Jerry West’s winning last-second shot against the Knicks, in the finals, I believe. “75 footer”…is what he said, with great resignation, followed by “Goood!!!!!!!”. This was at that level.

    • art thiel

      The game had about all the elements — except a big crowd. How nuts would that have been?

  • jafabian

    In-sane. Paul Westphal once described basketball as a chess game of the soul and this game was exactly that. The next question is after a game like this will the Zags have enough left in the tank for Baylor?

    • Kevin Mohundro

      Perhaps with a team more the Zags equal that they’ve faced this year in Baylor this game against UCLA is just what they needed. Hopefully the tank is refilled by Monday and the Zags add that last victory to one of the most fantastic seasons in NCAA Basketball history.

      • art thiel

        Even if they’re winning by double digits, staying undefeated is such a burden.

    • art thiel

      Fair question. The emotional expenditure to win a game that way will be hard to replicate. Who among the Zags could sleep?

    • ll9956

      The same question occurred to me. I suppose there’s some reason why the powers that be don’t want to give both teams more time to rest and prepare. Perhaps the teams are chewing on the bit, wanting to get on with it.

  • woofer

    Magic is surely the right word here. Jalen Suggs is a Basketball God in the making, and we were privileged to witness his official ritual awakening. Few’s teams have always been lovable, but their mental toughness in the clutch has been suspect. That last hurdle has now also been surmounted.

    Although his team lost a heartbreaker, the other big winner was Mick Cronin. He cemented his claim to be a worthy successor to the throne of John Wooden. The recruiting gates have been thrown open wide for his coming dominance. And that bodes especially ill for his cross-town rival, Andy Enfield, who had a good tourney early but was eclipsed late by Cronin. In the southern California sports cosmos UCLA is the dominant basketball school, and USC only thrives when UCLA is mired in turmoil. For Enfield that window of opportunity may have just closed.

    • art thiel

      I think both guys are worthy. Cronin has a little of Pete Carroll’s evangelism in him.

  • Kevin Mohundro

    Unbelievable shot and ending. The something crazy comment harkens me back decades ago to a player with more individual personality than would normally be found in the total of an entire team. As I recollect the game was against the Suns and likely over – yet our charismatic guard, Slick Watts took a long off balance, well guarded shot. Swish and down went the Suns. His response? I thought I’d try something freaky! Shades of crazy and something in both cases as Coach Few would attest, felt preordained.

    • art thiel

      Wow. A Slick Watts pull. Impressive. Freaky in itself.

  • Husky73

    Baylor is better than UCLA.

    • 2nd place is 1st loser

      So was the Zags, by 3.

      • art thiel

        Zags had a needed dose of humility.

    • jafabian

      In a championship game both teams are equal at tip off.

    • Bobby Cobb

      Isn’t it all about matchups, though? How do they match up?

      • art thiel

        It’s true. Baylor often uses five guards.

    • tor5

      Right. So were Michigan St, BYU, Alabama, and Michigan.

  • Stephen Pitell

    Great game. Great write up. Impressive teams. Last second shot deprived us all of 5 more minutes of great basketball.

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    • art thiel

      Thanks, and yes, I would have been happy with a couple more hours.

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  • 1coolguy

    Good sports column Art, thank you.
    Suggs’ just made “the shot II” a close second to Laettner’s 1992 turnaround against Kentucky. Incredibly that was 29 years ago OMG that’s a LONG time ago.
    https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=uH5ltiHSJqE&ab_channel=MarchMadness

    • art thiel

      I think Suggs rates the edge from driving the floor and hitting from distance.

      • 1coolguy

        It’s one of those sports arguments where there is no winner – Laettner’s catch, fake, turnaround while guarded then hitting the shot was about as tough as they come. Sugg’s was awesome, even though there is no way he was shooting for the glass.

      • LarryLurex70

        Edge to Laettner. Duke goes home if he misses. Hell, same for UCLA if Edney doesn’t go coast-to-coast 3 years later. That’s twice where NCAA Tournament history would’ve been altered. And, I wouldn’t rate Suggs game-winner ahead of Jenkins’ 3 to win the title in 2016, or the Wittenburg/Charles buzzer-beater, either. The stakes weren’t as high for Gonzaga when Suggs took that shot. Their season wouldn’t have been over if he misses. And, it didn’t win them the championship when it went in.

        Hell of a play, though.

  • tor5

    That was a dagger to my Bruin Blue heart. But, wow, what a shot! Still proud of the Bruins, and have no problem rooting big for Zags now. Two classy teams, I thought.