Gonzaga is still undefeated. The Zags are no longer unchallenged.
While their many critics argue this as proof that Mark Few’s side aren’t that great – despite a 26-0 record, a No.1 ranking in the NET and KenPom computer rankings and now the Championships of regular season and West Coast Conference tournament – Gonzaga’s 88-78 victory over BYU on Tuesday night was his best possible result.
The Zags have gone 25 regular season games unbeaten. On Monday, they made it through the semi-final of the West Coast Conference tournament. Only once in all of this did they manage to win by a double-digit margin. Their double-digit winning streak reached 22 games, something no team had achieved in the past 60 years of major college basketball.
They were expecting a more intimidating test from BYU in the COE Finals than they had encountered in a while. They certainly weren’t expecting to give up 53 points in the first half and drag a dozen at half-time, and still nine points in the middle of the second half.
The Zags did not panic, however. They survived.
“Coach Few hugged me and congratulated me and said, ‘This is the best thing that could have happened to us,” “All-America winger Corey Kispert told ESPN. “Resilience has been demonstrated, especially from our young guys. Just the competitive fire we showed in the second half – that’s what you can’t teach. We could have easily rolled around and let these guys drop us into a truck for the rest of the game. But that’s the real mark of a champion you can come back to for being so downcast. “
The Zags stayed perfect because Jalen Suggs, a rookie from across America, seized the moment, and that’s exactly the kind of ingredient they’ll need to become a champion: a willing and capable NBA-level talent. to endure the pressure of the greatest moments and to disarm. whatever defense is directed in its direction.
Suggs played a bit indifferently in the opening minutes of the second half, trying to pull Gonzaga out of his deficit with 3-point attempts early in the morning. Then he got serious.
There was a clear 3 point at the 7:56 mark which reduced the deficit to 68-64. He caught a rebound and threw a long pass to backcourt partner Joel Ayayi for a layup that put the Zags in front for the first time since the game started. He blocked a shot six minutes from time. When BYU pushed back in a tie, Suggs led strong in his right hand and scored a layup over two Cougars defensemen to make it 75-73 with four minutes left. Gonzaga maintained that lead until the end, and it grew as Suggs made 3 consecutive runs. He finished with 23 points and five assists.
Ultimately, despite battles so long in such a close game, Gonzaga pushed his lead to double digits and extended his record-breaking streak of those wins to 23 games.
“It’s a big deal, and it puts us in an incredible business,” few told reporters after the victory. “It’s a hell of a accomplishment, a hell of an accomplishment instead of these atmospheres that have been so stale and sterile and lend themselves to defensive efforts like we did in the first half, quite frankly.
Gonzaga would become just the fifth team to compete in the NCAA tournament with a perfect record since Indiana finished a perfect 32-0 in 1976, joining Indiana State in 1979, UNLV in 1991, the State of Wichita in 2014 and Kentucky in 2015.
“It’s hard not to think about it,” Suggs said. “But I think we’ve all done a good job of staying focused. But at some point you kind of have to recognize how special a team is and how special we are right now. I think the best part about it is we’re all excited for it, we’re all happy to keep going, but we’re all ready to go back to work and get ready for Indy.
What everyone who has since the Hoosiers have in common: They failed to win it all.
UNLV lost to Duke in the Final Four More precisely because the rebels were so rarely arrested that they did not have the tools to react when the opposition refused to give in. Everyone else had, at some point, dissolved against relentless pressure from the Vegas defense. Duke kept moving forward and putting the pressure of the game on the Rebels.
Given that Gonzaga had won his WCC games by an average margin of 24 points and knocked out powers as important as Kansas (by 12), Iowa (by 11) and Virginia (by 23), he was starting to seem that the Zags could make it the madness of March with the same lack of awareness of how to deal with adversity. Coaches can fix technical situations in practice – at the bottom of five, two and a half hours off the clock, you get out of it – but they can’t manufacture the tension inherent in a close game.
A team must go through this 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 fully prepared for what is to come.