Stecker: Gonzaga’s epic Final Four win over UCLA is the most important in Zags history — for a few days, at least

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Gonzaga finally did it. It finally pulled off what it hasn’t been able to do yet in an NCAA Tournament.

Instant Classic: Suggs’ 3 lifts Zags past UCLA and into title game

I’m not talking about winning the national title. Not yet, at least. I’m talking about not falling into the trap that the Zags have fallen into time and time again – finding themselves in a close game against an opponent they should beat and not figuring out how to close it out.

Clearly, Jalen Suggs wasn’t having that on Saturday night in Indianapolis.

Suggs, the highest-rated recruit to ever come to Gonzaga, was every bit as advertised Saturday in the 93-90 overtime win over UCLA in the Final Four that was so amazing it doesn’t even seem real. And maybe the fact that I can’t quite get myself to believe that it really happened is because as a Gonzaga fan, I’m so used to that game not going the Zags’ way.

What I mean by that game is that Gonzaga has come up short in contests just like this UCLA game so many times during its incredible run of 22 consecutive NCAA Tournament appearances. You know, the one they’re supposed to win as the higher seed, only to end up in a back-and-forth battle down the stretch. Those games never end well for the Zags.

For example, the previous NCAA Tournament in 2019. Gonzaga was a No. 1 seed meeting third-seeded Texas Tech in the Elite Eight. The Zags took a one-possession lead into halftime, just like Saturday against UCLA. The Red Raiders made the right adjustments out of halftime, however, and pulled out a 75-69 win, preventing Gonzaga from making the Final Four for the second time in three years and causing me to have a meltdown on Twitter focused on Mark Few’s coaching that I’m still embarrassed about.

The previous year, ninth-seeded Florida upset fourth-seeded Gonzaga in the Sweet 16 – so yeah, it had been a recurring theme.

If you go back to 2013, you’ll find a particularly painful version of that game. In the second-round, top seeded Gonzaga was upset by Wichita State, a No. 9, which was especially bad in a time before UMBC’s 16-over-a-1 upset of Virginia in 2019.

And while we’re at it, we may as well mention the loss from Gonzaga history that was in the back of every Zags fan’s mind on Saturday – the 2006 Sweet 16 against *checks notes* oh right, UCLA. OK, sure, the Bruins were ranked higher in that one – No. 2 to the Zags’ No. 3. But that was the year of Adam Morrison, and at that point eight years into the run of consecutive NCAA Tournament appearances, Gonzaga fans thought that was the team that was going to get Few his first Final Four.

It didn’t happen. It was brutal. Don’t ask me about it.

So with all that in mind, I think you could forgive me for having my moments of doubt Saturday. There was so much at stake for the Zags. Perfect record on the line, lights shining bright in the Final Four, facing an ELEVEN seed. And of course UCLA came into the game as the hottest team in the tournament and did not cool down one iota.

Johnny Juzang was a problem. Tyger Campbell kept hitting shots. Cody Riley was the first post player all tournament to figure out how to slow down Drew Timme.

Everybody’s been saying all year that it was going to take a perfect game to beat this Zags team. Well, UCLA was playing one, and Zags fans everywhere were repeating the refrain: “Oh, great. Here we go again.”

But these Zags had answers, and the one Suggs had at the end of overtime just was the last one, far from the only one.

Joel Ayayi was an absolute superstar, shooting 100% for much of the game. He deserves the lion’s share of the credit for UCLA not being able to build a lead in the first half.

Edmonds native and former King’s High School standout Corey Kispert came up with important steals, rebounds, shots, and – somehow, this is a real thing that happened – the most unexpectedly vicious dunk in traffic of the tournament.

Drew Timme actually got better after picking up his fourth foul late in regulation, taking an absolutely crucial charge that allowed Gonzaga to take the game to overtime, then setting the tone in the extra period first by winning the tipoff and then by scoring the first six of Gonzaga’s 12 points in OT.

And that was when Andrew Nembhard had his turn. Holding the ball at the top of the key and with UCLA clearly more focused on Timme than him, he stepped back for a gigantic 3-pointer that made it 90-85 with 1:17 left.

Every single one of the Zags’ starters did something to prove that there wasn’t going to be a that game in 2021.

Suggs, however, is going to get the most attention, and frankly that’s OK. Because besides hitting the best buzzer-beating bank 3 in program history (taking the mantle from Morrison’s Battle in Seattle shot against Oklahoma State in 2005 – I was there, it was awesome), the freshman sensation had a few more plays that were every bit as crucial in crunch time. In fact, the Zags probably don’t even make it to overtime if he doesn’t block what appeared to be an easy layup for Riley in a tie game with two minutes to go, then deliver a beautiful pass to Timme for a gigantic dunk in transition.

Gonzaga almost fell victim to the one thing that has plagued the program in its storied tournament history, but it didn’t. Instead, the Zags proved why this team is different. Why this team has the chance to finish off the first undefeated championship season since 1976, when the tournament featured less than half the number of teams it does now and the champion needed to make it through only four rounds, not six.

You could literally hear Gonzaga’s demons being exorcised when Suggs hit the game-winner. Seriously, listen to Adam Morrison’s reaction to it on the Gonzaga radio broadcast. That’s a man who’s been waiting for a win like that over UCLA for a very, very long time.

Saturday’s game an instant classic, but even more than that, it was the best win in Gonzaga men’s basketball history. In fact, it was the Zags’ most important win ever.

Hopefully just until Monday. Bring on Baylor.

Follow Brent Stecker on Twitter.

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