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Historic Zags must now find joy in painful moments

Here’s the aftermath of the Bulldogs’ near miss at perfection.

NCAA Basketball: Final Four-Baylor vs Gonzaga Robert Deutsch-USA TODAY Sports

Gonzaga’s season was perfect until the last 40 minutes.

The Bulldogs were only one win away from being undefeated and lifting the first NCAA championship trophy in program history. Instead, they watched the clock run out as the Baylor Bears started celebrating their 86-70 victory.

The ending wasn’t pretty, but head coach Mark Few said it was all about perspective.

“It’s a really, really tough one to end a storybook season on,” Few said. “Obviously we’re all disappointed in here, but as I told the guys, 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. They’ll look back on this season as time passes as something just amazing and incredible.”

There were a lot of tears, not the happy kind the Zags enjoyed just two days earlier when Jalen Suggs hit a buzzer beater against UCLA. The mood was down, but Drew Timme didn’t wait for Few to give a speech in the locker room. The sophomore wanted his teammates to leave the court with a positive message, so he talked to them in the postgame huddle.

“He told us that he loved us and he wouldn’t change a single thing,” Corey Kispert said. “He loved playing with this team. He loved fighting with us every day and he wouldn’t want to do it with a different group of guys. Drew’s been so authentic with us the entire year, it was nice to hear it from him.”

Few spent all season telling everyone that the key for his team’s success was that the players truly liked each other. From Competition Mondays to organizing a hallway bowling league, the Zags did seem to have a lot of fun together.

Gonzaga was ranked No. 1 in the nation since preseason. There were some high expectations placed on the Bulldogs, but Few said he never thought they played like they felt that weight on their shoulders. He said his team looked in control and in “attack mode” every other game, but that there was no doubt Baylor was the aggressor on Monday.

After 35 straight wins dating back to last year, Kispert said the team had forgotten what it felt to be on the losing side.

“You kind of forget, you really do forget what it’s like to lose,” he said. “And every time it happens, it doesn’t feel good.”

It was a difficult way for players to experience their first loss of the season, and for some of them their first college basketball loss ever. Few said Suggs, a freshman, was already picturing the team cutting down the nets and his competitive spirit made it hard for him to swallow the defeat. He called the young player a winner and said it had been a blessing to coach him.

Few believed time would lend Suggs and the rest of the team a better perspective. He said he was proud of the way everyone handled themselves all year, especially while playing during a pandemic and dealing with so many uncertainties.

Kispert, a senior, said he was going to spend the next two weeks taking a break from basketball and just enjoy time with family and friends. He said he felt fine physically but that this season had been emotionally exhausting so he was looking forward to decompressing.

While the journey wasn’t easy, Kispert said this year taught him about how in basketball and in life joy doesn’t come without suffering.

“It’s about dealing with those painful moments in your life and finding joy in those. That’s where real happiness comes from,” he said. “I’m definitely a better person because of playing this year under the circumstances that we did, taking punch after punch, I guess, from the world. And this team stayed strong all the way through.”

It’s a coach’s job to teach players about the game, but Few said this particular group had taught him some unforgettable lessons about the love for the game.

“None of them would take the love for basketball that they have away, and also the desire and love that they had to hoop together and to play together,” the coach said. “Their resiliency and their drive and stick-to-itiveness and their positive attitude and enthusiasm was something that I’ll take with me the rest of my life.”