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Baylor denies Gonzaga's bid for perfection, wins first men's basketball championship

Baylor raced to an early lead Monday, thanks to red-hot shooting, hard work on the boards and suffocating defense.
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Baylor University, just a generation removed from one of the most disturbing scandals in college basketball history, captured the sport's ultimate prize Monday night.

The Bears beat Gonzaga, 86-70, in the Division I title game at Lucas Oil Stadium in downtown Indianapolis, keeping the Bulldogs one agonizing victory short of a perfect season.

Gonzaga ended the campaign 31-1, meaning that the last top-flight college basketball team to win it all, without a blemish remains the 1975-76 Indiana Hoosiers.

Baylor’s trio of high-energy, sharp-shooting guards, Jared Butler, MaCio Teague and Davion Mitchell, scored 22, 19 and 15 points, respectively in leading the Bears to the school's first men's basketball title.

Gonzaga’s Jalen Suggs labored for all 22 of his team-high points, but he couldn’t re-create the magic of his buzzer-beating winner in the national semifinal game 48 hours earlier. The shot was this tournament's signature moment.

Baylor raced to an early 19-point lead Monday, thanks to red-hot shooting, hard work on the boards and suffocating defense.

“We play with a culture of joy," Baylor coach Scott Drew said. “They fed off of each other, we got off to a great start.”

He thanked “our fans that have been with us for the lean years (and) the good years.”

Gonzaga, perhaps still drained from its thrilling 93-90 overtime victory over UCLA on Saturday, looked flat from the start. The Bulldogs cut their deficit to a single digit shortly after intermission, but Baylor never panicked and kept a comfortable lead.

Bulldogs coach Mark Few refused to let Monday night's loss tarnish a remarkable 2020-21 season.

"You can't go to 31-0 and get to the last night and get beat and feel bad about it," Few said. "It was just an unbelievable run we've been on."

The coach said he told his players to keep their chins up, as they head back to Spokane with their first loss of the season.

"I just said this will pass," Few said. "We got to give Baylor a ton of credit. But just remember what an amazing, amazing year, what an amazing accomplishment, even getting to this point, was."

Capturing college basketball's top trophy capped the 18th season of Drew's run at Baylor, which began at the lowest point any program could have reached.

Image: NCAA Basketball: Final Four-Baylor vs Gonzaga
Baylor Bears guard Mark Vital, 11, blocks a shot by Gonzaga Bulldogs forward Corey Kispert, 24, during the second half in the national championship game during the Final Four of the 2021 NCAA Tournament at Lucas Oil Stadium, in Indianapolis, on April 5, 2021.Kyle Terada / USA TODAY Sports via Reuters

Drew took over a basketball team in Waco, Texas, mired in scandal after the 2003 slaying of Bears standout Patrick Dennehy at the hands of teammate Carlton Dotson. In the days after Denney's slaying, then-Baylor coach Dave Bliss urged the victim's teammates to cast him as a drug dealer in hopes of covering up illicit payments Bliss had made to the player.

Drew, the son of highly regarded Valparaiso University coach Homer Drew, was tapped with scoring wins on the hardwood while staying out of trouble. The former was no easy task, and Drew's Bears had losing seasons in his first four years, going 36-69 in that span.

The Bears haven't had a losing season since and have stood their ground playing in the same league with perennial powerhouse Kansas and high-revenue Texas.

Monday's championship game brought a curtain down on the most unusual edition of March Madness in the sport's history.

The popular tournament was canceled last year, as one of America's first, major cultural events to be called off becauase of the coronavirus pandemic.

In hopes of controlling the virus' spread this year, the NCAA limited team travel by staging the entirety of the tournament in or near Indianapolis.

The unusual travel constraints of this past season meant players and coaches spent an inordinate amount of time together.

"If you’re going to be in a bubble for three, four weeks, you better be with people you love,” Drew said moments before cutting down nets late Monday night. “They’re unbelievable people, great basketball players, (but) better people.”

The women's Division I tournament was held in San Antonio while the men's secondary competition, the National Invitation Tournament, took place just outside Dallas.

Stanford won the women's tournament on Sunday night, edging conference rival Arizona, 54-53.

Memphis captured the NIT with a 77-64 win over Mississippi State a week ago Sunday.

The competitions did not go off without incident.

Virginia Commonwealth University had to be been pulled from a first-round men's game because of Covid-19 protocols. Removal of the 10th-seeded Rams meant Oregon was advanced and the game declared a no-contest.

Shortly after her team was eliminated in the national quarterfinals, Baylor women's coach Kim Mulkey said the NCAA should do away with Covid-19 testing, drawing criticism for the off-beat suggestion.