INDIANAPOLIS — They walked off the floor almost with a strut. Johnny Juzang raised both of his arms toward the ceiling of Lucas Oil Stadium, acknowledging the UCLA fans in the audience. Jaime Jaquez stopped and waved his right index finger, the universal signal for “We’re No. 1.” Three decades from now, they and their Bruins teammates will talk proudly, will brag loudly, of having played in this NCAA Final Four game.
And they were the losing team.
That’s how extraordinary this was, this game between the Bruins and Gonzaga’s Bulldogs in the 2021 NCAA Tournament semifinals. It was a game that will not be forgotten as long as they’re playing this magnificent event, and maybe longer. It ended on a shot that made Christian Laettner’s appear routine, that made Bryce Drew’s seem like a layup. Zags freshman Jalen Suggs forced himself into their legendary company with a 42-foot heave that beat the clock, banked hard off the glass, caught the inside of the front rim, rocketed through the net, finished the Bruins’ astonishing tournament run and propelled his team into a national championship game showdown with fellow No. 1 seed Baylor.
“What a great college basketball game,” Gonzaga coach Mark Few told reporters after the 93-90 overtime victory was just a few minutes old. “And to do it on the biggest stage is just awesome. And to come out with the win, I know we had a lucky half-courter at the end. But both teams battled, battled and dug as deep, I think, as they could.”
That was the essence of this game, in which the tournament’s No. 1 overall seed, undefeated Gonzaga, never could put more than seven points between itself and UCLA, which was required by the NCAA selection committee and the tournament format to play an extra game merely to earn a spot in the standard bracket.
The score was tied 16 times during the course of its 45 minutes. There were 19 lead changes. UCLA’s largest lead was six points. Gonzaga’s was seven. The two teams were eye-to-eye, chest-to-chest throughout. UCLA shot 57.6 percent from the field. Gonzaga shot 58.7 percent. Each team had just 10 turnovers despite the abundance of possessions. Suggs pulled off a ridiculous play with two minutes left, soaring to block a dunk attempt by Bruins center Cody Riley, retrieving the rebound and then firing a 50-foot-bounce pass to center Drew Timme for a dunk and a one-basket lead.
UCLA responded to a five-point overtime deficit with a 3-pointer from Jaquez and a determined effort by Juzang to follow his own miss with an aggressive rebound but patient follow.
It might have proved impossible to separate the two by conventional means, so it was left to Suggs to attempt something extraterrestrial.
“Man, that is something that you practice on your mini hoop as a kid or in the gym just messing around. And to be able to do that, it’s crazy,” Suggs told reporters. “I’ve always said a football game, section championship against Benilde-St. Margaret’s my senior year was my greatest sports moment I’ve been a part of. This skyrockets above that. I mean, it was nuts. And I still can’t speak. I have so many things going on in my head. I just can’t believe that happened. I don’t think it’s really going to hit me until I wake up tomorrow. But, I mean, tonight was special.”
A freshman who earned second-team All-America honors, Suggs was assigned not only to run Gonzaga’s offense but also to defend Bruins star Juzang, whose 29 points against the Zags gave him a five-game average of 21.6.
It was Juzang who scored 12 points in the final 11 minutes, including the short jumper that started the comeback that carried the Bruins from seven points down to a tie game at the end of regulation. It was Juzang who followed his own miss in the lane with 3.3 seconds in overtime left to tie the score and — for a fleeting moment — allow them to ponder a second extra period.
UCLA coach Mick Cronin had no timeout available to set his defense for those final seconds. Gonzaga had no interest in calling one to set up a Laettner-style scheme, although Suggs, as a former all-state quarterback in Minnesota, was available to make the downcourt pass. Few was content to allow Suggs to see what he could conjure by advancing the ball rapidly and launching an attempt before time expired.
“I was running at my guys to get their attention to trap the ball,” Cronin said. “I got their attention late, and they came to him late. And it’s not their fault because we trained them to get back, get back, get back, because Gonzaga is so fast. But I knew the clock was short. And I knew all he had was a desperation. I’ve lost on that before. Literally, if you look at the film, I was running to try to get them to come up so he couldn’t dribble into that shot. Obviously, it was still a bank shot from half court.
“I just told them they’ve got to let the last shot go. And as much as they want to be beat down right now and gutted and miserable, they’ve got to let it go because they’re winners. They won. As a coach, all you can do is ask your players to give you everything they’ve got. And I mean, come on, guys, all you’ve got to do is watch.
“These guys, they deserved a better ending, but like I told them, as Coach Wooden would say, true greatness is giving your best effort. And that’s what they did.”
Gonzaga never was able to get its offense exactly where it would have preferred. The Zags’ lineup contains five capable scorers. Some are more capable than others, though, and All-American Corey Kispert never gained comfort, hitting only 2 of 8 on 3-pointers to finish with 15 points. Suggs off got 12 shots, the same number as fourth option Joel Ayayi, who took advantage of the Bruins’ emphasis on stopping those two stars to finish with 22 points
Center Drew Timme wound up with a handsome 25 points, but a chunk of those were the six quick OT points that, like so much of the Zags’ success against the Bruins, couldn’t quite be sustained.
“Man, it was tough to get any separation,” Few said. “We were dealing with some foul trouble. We were trying to get Drew in and out of that thing. And lost in all this, and the last-second shot, Jalen did an unbelievable job D-ing up Juzang. They ran so many good actions for him, and he was all over him. And Juzang is just a big-time player, hits big-time, tough shots.
“Obviously at the end of it, you could tell how both staffs and all the players reacted that it was an all-timer.”
Few shrugged when Suggs’ shot went through the goal and offered a sheepish fist-pound at midcourt to Cronin that quickly turned into an embrace. Suggs, after he charged over the sideline and leaped onto the scorer’s table — “like Kobe and D-Wade and guys like that” — exchanged hugs with Bruins players.
This could be said to have been the greatest Final Four game ever. It did not contain the finality of a championship game such as 2016’s duel between Villanova and North Carolina. The talent was not at the 1990s, stay-in-school level that elevated Duke-UNLV 1991. And there was no singular superstar like Danny Manning in 1988 elevating everyone from Kansas and Oklahoma State to a herculean level. It just was a better game, a more entertaining game, a more fiercely contested game than even those three great works of art.
If one wishes to find any game at this stage comparable, it might be necessary to return all the way to 1974, when N.C. State and David Thompson took down UCLA and Bill Walton in double overtime. Does anyone wish to return to 1974, though?
Certainly not Bruins fans. They lost that one, too. It ended their run of seven consecutive NCAA championships. This game, though, more likely was the start of something magical for UCLA. This was only Cronin’s second year. To convince his players to perform like this, for the five games of this tournament and particularly against the tournament’s No. 1 overall seed, could have a similar impact on the program as Kentucky’s presence in that classic 1991 Elite Eight game against Duke had on the Wildcats.
“We weren’t going to let anybody have their heads down,” Juzang said. “Everybody is so proud to play with each other and to play for these coaches. And there’s no other way we’d rather go out. We went out fighting. Just we went out. There’s no better way. There’s no regrets. Just everybody fought to the last play and the last shot is the last shot.”
It was some shot. It was some game. There were no losers, only the team whose score was smaller when the clock struck zero and the team with still another game to play.