It was nearly eighteen years ago when Scott Drew said he was coming to Baylor “… for a chance to win a national championship,” he may have been the only one that believed it.
Everyone else was laughing. But now … nobody’s laughing.
Stopping Gonzaga’s bid for the first undefeated season in 45 years, the Baylor Bears jumped out to a double-digit lead in the first four minutes and never looked back. Defeating the Bulldogs, 86-70, to win the first national championship in program history.
“First and foremost, I want to thank God for blessing us with this opportunity tonight,” Drew said. “I know the guys have worked really hard, and I’m so happy they get a chance to celebrate now. We weren’t going to have any regrets with this tournament. We wanted to leave it all out on the court. Just really blessed with the effort everyone gave us tonight.”
Gonzaga was back in the championship game for the second time in five years, was trying to become the first undefeated national champ since Indiana’s 32-0 team in 1976. But, after trailing by no more than eight in its previous five NCAA Tournament games, the Bulldogs got down 9-0 in the first 2 minutes and never really recovered.
“They punched us in the mouth right at the get-go,” said Gonzaga All-American forward Corey Kispert.
“We haven’t played like that this year,” said Gonzaga coach Mark Few, who was 4-0 in previous head-to-head matchups with Drew and the Bears. “We couldn’t get anything generated to the basket; we were kind of playing sideways. On the other end . . . we made a couple mistakes we talked about not doing as far as giving them catch-and-shoot 3’s or shake-down 3’s, and they made us pay in a hurry.”
Jared Butler, named the Final Four Most Outstanding Player, hit a pair of driving layups in the early 9-0 run and then drained back-to-back 3-pointers to start the second half after Gonzaga had whittled a 19-point deficit down to 10.
The junior All-American guard matched the Bulldogs’ Jalen Suggs for game-high scoring honors with 22 points, hitting 4-of-9 from outside the arc and a perfect 6-of-6 from the line.
“Start of the game was tremendous,” Butler said. “I know I didn’t, Adam (Flagler) didn’t, Mark (Vital) didn’t, we didn’t look at the scoreboard. We were just going out there, giving it our all. . . . Electrifying, especially in that type of moment, a big game. Everybody stepped up., everybody was clicking on all cylinders. That’s what it takes to win.”
In a matchup of arguably the best two backcourts in the country – and teams, for that matter – Baylor’s quartet of Butler, Flagler, Davion Mitchell and MaCio Teague were at their best in the biggest moment. They combined for 69 points, hitting 10-of-20 from 3-point range and 14-of-15 from the line.
“We say it all the time, we think we’re the best guards in the nation,” Butler said. “We went up against some highly touted guards. They’re explosive, they have (6-10 forward) Drew Timme. And we want to be the best guards in the nation. I think we proved that tonight. We made a statement. And it’s just the best way to do it – on national TV, NCAA Tournament championship game. It’s amazing.”
Teague and Mitchell added 19 and 15 points, respectively, and Flagler scored 13 points off the bench, knocking down 3-of-4 from outside the arc. Mark Vital chipped in with six points and a game-high 11 rebounds, helping the Bears dominate the boards, 38-22, and outscore Gonzaga, 16-5, in second-chance points.
On the defensive end, Baylor held Gonzaga to its fewest points of the season and just 5-of-17 from 3-point distance. Timme, coming off a 25-point game in Saturday’s 93-90 overtime win over UCLA, finished with just 12 points and five rebounds and had five of the Bulldogs’ 14 turnovers going against Vital, Flo Thamba and Jonathan Tchamwa Tchatchoua.
“He’s a heck of a player,” Drew said of Timme, who had averaged 22.5 points with a combined 19 assists and only five turnovers in the previous five NCAA Tournament games. “Credit our guys for really having great ball pressure on the perimeter and really trying to limit his touches, because if he caught it, we knew we were going to be in trouble.”
Not letting up after that early surge, Baylor stretched its lead to 29-10 on back-to-back 3-pointers by Butler and Teague at the midway point of the first half.
Gonzaga did at least make it interesting, closing the half on a 9-2 run that included a three-point play by Suggs. A buzzer-beating floater by Anton Watson whittled what had been a 19-point deficit down to a more-manageable 10-point difference at the break, 47-37.
Butler gave the Bears the momentum back in the first minute of the second half, hitting consecutive 3-pointers that pushed the lead back to 53-39.
“He hit back-to-back 3’s later in the clock at the start of that second half, and that’s what we didn’t want him to do. We wanted him to bounce it,” Few said.
Butler said the first five minutes of the second half were critical.
“That’s always a point of emphasis for us, the first five minutes (of the second half),” said Butler, who scored 12 of his 22 points in the second half, going 6-of-6 from the line. “These games are second-half games. Early leads don’t mean anything. We looked at it like it was 0-0, and we knew they were going to fight. Very talented team, they’re never out of the game.”
Proving Butler right, Gonzaga got back within nine on a layup by Andrew Nembhard. But, in a 9-2 run that pushed it back to double digits for good, Butler fed Vital for a layup, knocked down a pair of free throws and then found Flagler for a back-breaking 3-pointer after Vital blocked a Kispert layup attempt on the other end.
“Gonzaga has, obviously, some unbelievably talented guards,” Drew said. “And one thing I can tell you about our guards, though, when the best is needed, the best is usually provided. As (former Baylor quarterback Robert Griffin III) would say: No pressure, no diamonds. Our guys, the better the opponent, the better they play. And they love being the first – first to win conference since 1950; first to win a national championship. That motivates them.”
Joining Butler on the Final Four all-tournament team were Mitchell, Suggs, Timme and UCLA’s Johnny Juzang. Butler was the first player since Carmelo Anthony in 2003 to have 20 points and seven assists in a national championship game.
“He’s a complete player,” Few said of Butler. “He can guard, he can score mid-range, he can score at the basket, and he’s a deadly 3-point shooter. . . . I thought we could have done a better job of forcing him into taking those 2’s.”
Baylor becomes just the second men’s basketball team from Texas to win a national championship and the first since Texas Western (now UTEP) in 1966. This is also Baylor’s fifth NCAA national championship overall and the first in a men’s sport since tennis won the school’s first national title in 2004. Kim Mulkey’s Lady Bear basketball team won the other three national chapionships in 2005, 2012 and 2019.
“I thought we were on a mission to make the most of it,” Drew said. “If we had lost, we wanted to have no regrets; we wanted to leave it all on the table.
“As a coach, you never know when you’re going to be able to get to a Final Four, a national championship, so you want to take advantage of those opportunities. . . . Really blessed that we were able to get to a Final Four and win a national championship, because they’re hard to do.”