Before knowing if the college basketball season would even get to March Madness, a huge letdown came in early December when the Gonzaga-Baylor 1-2 matchup was canceled due to the coronavirus.

As if Monday’s showdown didn’t already need more buildup. It would become one of the most highly anticipated national championships ever.

And yet what transpired on the biggest stage in Indianapolis ended up being another type of letdown.

Gonzaga, seemingly exhausted emotionally coming off Jalen Suggs’ magical buzzer-beater two nights earlier, dug a fast double-digit hole too deep to overcome in an 86-70 loss against Baylor at Lucas Oil Stadium.

“Really tough one to end a storybook season on,” Zags coach Mark Few said. “Baylor just beat us in every facet of the game.”

Suggs’ 37-foot last-second jumper to beat UCLA in overtime Saturday was being talked about as possibly the most memorable shot in modern March Madness lore. Problem was, the ultimate goal for Gonzaga (31-1) was to make history of a different kind — finishing undefeated.

The task of matching the 1976 Indiana team’s incredible feat seemed within grasp — until the Bears (28-2) overpowered their opponent on the glass and outplayed the tourney’s overall No. 1 seed on both ends of the floor to seize a 29-10 lead.

Immediately, the Zags needed to overcome the largest deficit to ever win the NCAA title game (greater than Loyola Chicago’s 15-point deficit to beat Cincinnati in 1963).

One game after the Gonzaga freshman star’s late heroics, Suggs’ absence derailed his team after his two fouls with just under 17 minutes left in the first half.

For only the second time all season, Gonzaga trailed by double figures. The first had been a 12-point halftime deficit in the West Coast Conference tournament vs. BYU. In that comeback win, Suggs led the way like he had in other big games. This time it wasn’t enough.

Suggs, a former Minnehaha Academy star, had 15 of his team-high 22 points in the second half, but he had to be consoled following his first collegiate loss Monday night.

“In his mind he saw us cutting down the nets at the end of this,” Few said. “But he’s also young and as time goes by he’ll gain better perspective on what an incredible impact he had on this team and college basketball.”

On most nights, Gonzaga All-America big man Drew Timme complemented Suggs inside. Timme was averaging 23 points in five previous NCAA tourney games. But he finished with 12 points (two in the second half) and five turnovers while struggling with a nagging hip injury on top of battling Baylor’s physical and athletic front line.

Baylor’s three-headed backcourt attack of Jared Butler, Davion Mitchell and MaCio Teague combined for 31 points in the first half. The Bears were stymied briefly by a 2-3 zone, but they still hit seven first-half threes in taking a 47-37 halftime lead.

“Gonzaga has got obviously some unbelievably talented guards,” Bears coach Scott Drew said. “One thing I can tell you about our guards, though, when the best is needed, the best is usually provided.”

Andrew Nembhard’s layup pulled Gonzaga within 58-49 with 14:30 left in the second half, but that woke up the Big 12 power. Five different players scored during a 15-4 run that was capped by Mitchell’s two free throws to give the Bears their biggest lead, 73-53.

Butler, the Final Four’s Most Outstanding Player, finished with 22 points and seven assists for the Bears, who forced 14 turnovers and grabbed 16 offensive rebounds.

BOXSCORE: Baylor 86, Gonzaga 70

This was Gonzaga’s second trip all-time to the Final Four and second time finishing national runner-up for Few, who lost to North Carolina in 2017. He was able to put the loss quickly into perspective.

“You make it this far and you’re 31-0 going into the last one, the last 40 minutes of the season, there’s absolutely nothing you should ever feel bad [about],” Few said told his players.

Baylor had not been to the national title game since 1948. Drew, who took over as head coach in 2003, made two Elite Eight appearances but not even that far since 2012.

Drew’s squad didn’t get a chance to prove itself vs. Gonzaga on Dec. 5 in Indianapolis due to two positive COVID-19 tests for Bulldogs. The Bears remained in their shadow all season, especially suffering two losses after a three-week covid pause.

Gonzaga wasn’t the team of destiny after all, though. It finally ran into the best team it hadn’t played yet.

“I don’t know if there was much of a difference,” Drew said while accepting the national championship trophy. “Prior to COVID, us and Gonzaga were on the track to be undefeated.”

The Star Tribune did not travel for this game. This article was written using the television broadcast and video interviews before and/or after the game.

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