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Gonzaga's Undefeated Season Ends As Baylor Is Crowned Champion

STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:

We have some basketball news out of Indiana. The top story, my high school alma mater in Indiana won the state 4A championship. In some other news, the NCAA men's basketball tournament concluded in Indianapolis last night. Baylor defeated Gonzaga 86 to 70, which was Gonzaga's only defeat the entire season. Here's NPR's Tom Goldman.

TOM GOLDMAN, BYLINE: Maybe it was too much to ask for. After Saturday's riveting Gonzaga overtime win against UCLA in the tournament semifinals, a game for the ages, basketball fans anticipated at least some of the same in Monday's championship game. After all, Gonzaga versus Baylor matched the two best teams in the men's game. Alas, the hoped-for titanic clash didn't deliver the titanic part. Blame Baylor for the lack of drama. For a second straight game in Indy, the Bears were overpowering, too fast, too strong, too skilled for a Gonzaga team that came into the contest 31-0, looking to complete the first undefeated season in men's hoops since 1976. While much of the country was shocked by the result, Zag's longtime head coach Mark Few wasn't.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

MARK FEW: I've been watching them all year and watched them last year. And I knew they were going to be a handful for us. Just - those guards are so quick. And they can all get to their own shot.

GOLDMAN: Few refused to blame the pressure of going undefeated or fatigue from Saturday's epic win. He could only watch helplessly as the Bears exploded to a 9-nothing lead and never trailed, the first men's team since 2014 to lead start to finish in a title game. Baylor was relentless, rebounding the ball. And those guards Few talked about, including Junior Davion Mitchell and Final Four Most Outstanding Player Jared Butler, were smothering on defense and punishing with their accurate three-point shooting and very aware, said Butler, they were going up against a highly touted group of Gonzaga guards.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

JARED BUTLER: We want to be the best guards in the nation. And I think we proved that tonight. The best way to do it on, you know, national TV, you know, NCAA tournament championship game - like, it's amazing to do it.

(CHEERING)

GOLDMAN: The win prompted a throng of fans to storm the field at Baylor's McLane Stadium in Waco, Texas. Any other year, it was a rousing student celebration - in 2021, a potential super-spreader moment as well. The pandemic was a factor throughout this choppy college basketball season. Both Baylor and Gonzaga had to pause their programs due to COVID cases. Bears head coach Scott Drew talked about how players navigated constant testing, safety protocols and isolation.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

SCOTT DREW: Guys not going to see family, not going to see friends. And I feel real blessed that they had an opportunity to play in the NCAA tournament. But I think, all year long, when games would get canceled, we really took it as a blessing when games were played.

GOLDMAN: Baylor's championship also is a promise kept by Drew. He took over the program in 2003 when it was still reeling from a scandal that included the murder of a player by a teammate. At his introductory press conference, Drew cast Baylor basketball as the little guy that could.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

DREW: And this is definitely a David-versus-Goliath situation. But I can tell you this, our staff will have the work ethic, the integrity and the commitment to success needed to get this program where it needs to go.

GOLDMAN: Eighteen years later, David is Goliath, the wrecker of what coach Few called Gonzaga's storybook season, which ended short of history by a mile.

Tom Goldman, NPR News.

(SOUNDBITE OF RAPPER BIG POOH'S "TOO REAL [INSTRUMENTAL]") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.