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Postseason awards: Gonzaga vs. UCLA was an instant classic and is our Game of the Year

Gonzaga’s closest win was the perfect intersection of the old style of play versus the new, yet neither one yielded until the final moment.

NCAA Basketball: Final Four-UCLA at Gonzaga Robert Deutsch-USA TODAY Sports

April 3, 2021: Gonzaga 93, UCLA 90 (OT)

This game almost needs no explanation.

The Final Four matchup between the No. 1 overall seeded Gonzaga Bulldogs and the 11 seed UCLA Bruins had it all. The Jalen Suggs shot and the ensuing celebration on the scorer’s table. Johnny Juzang playing out of his mind, hitting every midrange jumper to keep UCLA in the game. Drew Timme taking a charge with four fouls and 3.3 seconds to go in a tie game. And, before Suggs’s overtime magic, there was his block on Cody Riley’s layup, which led to a pinpoint skip pass to Timme for a transition dunk.

While Gonzaga’s Final Four win eventually became the last great moment for one of the best college basketball teams in recent memory, the game itself was excellent. History might favor the final few minutes of regulation and the iconic overtime, yet both teams played exceptional basketball for the first 35 minutes. Both teams shot better than 57% from the field with significantly different shot charts.

The most impressive part about this game was everyone could find something to enjoy. It was a complete game. UCLA was excellent in the midrange, mastered the pace of the game and played relentless interior defense. Gonzaga thrilled in transition, knocked down big threes and had a modern big man in Timme who could distribute, rebound and excel at the rim on both ends. On a Venn diagram, this game existed in the space between the slow, midrange-heavy basketball of old, and the faster, transition-heavy play featured in today’s NBA. Yet neither Mick Cronin’s slower style nor Mark Few’s uptempo offense yielded to the other.

At first, it appeared that Gonzaga would be too much for a UCLA team that trotted out a lineup with one true point guard, a bunch of wings and no one taller than 6’9. Gonzaga showed off its depth early when Joel Ayayi — the team’s fourth-leading scorer — appeared to be the only Zag ready to play. While his teammates struggled to finish at the rim, the senior guard notched seven points and two rebounds before another Zag got into the scoring column. He went on to score 16 points in the first half and didn’t miss from the field until 11 minutes left in the second half.

UCLA not only hung with Gonzaga, but also built a lead on being unstoppable in the midrange. Juzang spent most of the shot clock cooking defenders off the dribble, hitting step-back jumpers from the foul line and showing why he had the hottest hand in the tournament. Only outdone by Ayayi, Juzang’s 15 first-half points from mostly within the arc helped the Bruins keep up with the best offense in the country.

The Bruins also did not fall into the trap of racing with the Bulldogs — something most of Gonzaga’s opponents fell for doing throughout the season. Tyger Campbell insisted on walking it up the floor regardless of the score or the situation, passing up potential transition situations in favor of preserving the clock and stopping Gonzaga’s transition game. The Bruins routinely sent three players back after every one of their shots, trusting their half-court defense more than they did fighting for rebounds against Timme, Anton Watson and Corey Kispert underneath. UCLA didn’t have a true big man, after all.

Of course, the obvious mismatch led to Timme getting whatever he wanted early, both as a scorer and as a distributor. He found Ayayi and Suggs cutting often, was one of the few Zags to finish at the rim and also contributed to the best sequence of the first half: He anticipated Juzang’s pass to Cody Riley near midcourt, and tipped the ball out to Ayayi, who was bolting across the sideline to save the ball from going out of bounds. As Ayayi started the fast break, Timme sprinted towards the basket, received the pass and dropped the hammer.

A barrage of threes late in the first half appeared to signal UCLA’s time hanging with Gonzaga would come to a close. After all, most teams that kept things close with Gonzaga began to falter around halftime, which almost made Gonzaga’s first-half struggles forgivable. Throughout the season, lesser teams like Loyola Marymount, Pacific and BYU played their best possible first halves before the Bulldogs’ athleticism and skill took over in the second.

Until that game, Gonzaga trailed only three times in the second half all season — and only once with under eight minutes to play.

But UCLA followed up its first half by weathering Gonzaga’s second-half surge.

Early on, the Bulldogs controlled the tempo of the second half with Suggs, Ayayi and Timme once again leading the fast break. For a hot second, Southern Illinois transfer Aaron Cook became a revelation off the bench: He drove all the way to the basket, faked a layup and seamed a pass to Suggs in mid-air, whose layup gave Gonzaga a 54-52 lead at 13:44. UCLA tried doubling Timme in the post, yet even that couldn’t stop Timme from scoring or getting to the free-throw line.

But no matter how many shots went down, UCLA countered. Juzang eclipsed 20 points with 7:09 to go, then Campbell lunged for a layup that found the bottom of the net to give UCLA a 71-70 lead with 6:08 to go. This was the latest Gonzaga had trailed all season.

All of this built up to a magical final two minutes of regulation.

Riley had a wide-open layup until Suggs blocked it from behind with his left hand. Suggs corralled the rebound while tiptoeing inbounds, accelerated down the sideline, then seamed a one-handed bounce pass through multiple defenders in transition, which hit Timme in stride. Timme’s ensuing dunk, flex and mustache wipe sealed the deal.

Naturally, Juzang hit a short corner jumper to tie the game, which led to what could have been Kispert’s shining moment. The All-American made a layup to give the Bulldogs an 81-79 lead with 58 seconds left, but he fouled Jaime Jaquez on the other end. Jaquez, a 65% free-throw shooter, hit both free throws. Kispert could have sealed the deal on the next possession, but his NBA-range three didn’t connect.

This led to what could have Juzang’s shining moment. With the shot clock turned off, he dribbled the ball across half court, met Gonzaga’s defense near the hash mark, then split Suggs and Kispert and saw a wide open lane — not far enough for another jumper at the free-throw line, but plenty of room for a floater. Juzang pressed his luck and got closer to the basket, only to see all seven feet of Timme waiting for him.

Instead, this was Timme’s moment.

Standing two feet outside the restricted arc, Timme stood upright, then buckled his knees as Juzang collided into him. After the referees could finish blowing their whistles, Juzang’s layup bounced off the backboard and hit the rim. Timme’s gamble by taking the charge paid off. Gonzaga had the ball with 0.8 seconds left.

Juzang intercepted Gonzaga’s cross-court pass as time expired. Overtime.

Extra time was nothing new for the Bruins this year. UCLA played in nine overtime periods, with as many overtimes in the NCAA Tournament (three) as it did in an early-season game against Pepperdine. Yet amazingly enough, Gonzaga had played in nine overtimes total between Feb. 24, 2011 and the 2021 Final Four.

It had been 18 years since the Bulldogs’ last overtime game in the NCAA Tournament, but the team did not look rattled from the onset. Timme did not look like a man playing with four fouls: He scored Gonzaga’s first four points of extra time: first finishing a layup through contact with a full head of steam, then by flirting with disaster again by falling over his defender as he scooped in a left-handed layup.

Trailing 87-83 with 3:13 left in overtime, it looked like the Bruins ran out of gas. When Nembhard — whose jumper was the biggest concern when he transferred from Florida to Gonzaga — nailed a three with 1:17 left to give Gonzaga a 90-85 lead, UCLA looked finished. Yet Jaquez answered with a corner three, which set up what could have been the dagger. But Kispert’s corner three bricked off the near side of the rim and the backboard before it fell into Singleton’s arms. Juzang wound up with the ball and Suggs met him across half court.

Like he had all game, Juzang hunched over, crossed over four times, then bolted towards the basket. Suggs didn’t relent despite a Jaquez screen. Kispert switched onto Juzang, and the Kentucky transfer tried crossing up his new defender. This time, it worked.

Juzang bolted into the paint, stopped, and released a weak floater that had just enough gas to hit the front of the rim. In an instant, Juzang corralled the rebound, gathered himself and made a right-handed layup while four Zags in arm’s length watched. A second overtime seemed inevitable.

In a rare moment, four UCLA players were caught watching the shot go up instead of bolting back on defense. This could have been the Bruins’ undoing. Nobody could have stopped what happened next.

With 3.3 seconds on the clock, Kispert inbounded to Suggs, who only needed three dribbles to get across half court. Singleton was waiting at one of the stars near the center court logo with his arms straight up, his best attempt to not foul the shooter. It didn’t matter. Suggs stopped in front of Singleton and shot with 0.8 seconds left.

You know the rest.

As the ball sailed through the air, momentum carried Suggs into the three-point line as the horn sounded. He paused long enough to watch his shot bank in, then he pumped his fist and leapt in the air before making a beeline to the scorer’s table as his teammates emptied the bench in pursuit. Meanwhile, the broadcast showed a brief scene of Mark Few, understated as ever, shrugging his shoulders at Cronin as the coaches met at midcourt to shake hands. Few said afterwards as soon as he saw the shot, he knew it was going in.

The most energetic reaction came from Tom Hudson and Adam Morrison, who lost their minds several rows above the action while calling the game for Gonzaga’s radio station. A Gonzaga legend whose career has been distilled into a meme to those outside of Spokane, Morrison was vindicated from what transpired on the court. 15 years after UCLA went on an 11-0 run to beat Gonzaga in the Elite Eight, the Bulldogs came full circle: This time, the small Jesuit school from Spokane was the established powerhouse, and UCLA was the Cinderella left heartbroken as the clock struck midnight.

For people looking for a sign that Gonzaga was the team of destiny, they found it in this moment. For those needing Gonzaga to Be Tested, or to Win a Close Game — as if an overwhelmingly dominant regular season wasn’t convincing enough — this game provided an answer.

As Suggs flexed on the scorer’s table, history pointed towards Gonzaga finally winning it all. The Bulldogs had their Mario Chalmers moment. They had a stud one-and-done leading the charge, just like Carmelo Anthony in 2003. They had a 31-0 record — the first perfect season entering the national title game since Larry Bird’s 1979 Indiana State Sycamores.

Yet Gonzaga emptied the tank of its magical run one game too early. But watch Suggs’ Kobe-esque celebration one more time, and the title game almost doesn’t matter.

In that moment, the Bulldogs were kings.