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Baylor Overcomes Late Gonzaga Lead, Wins 64-63

NCAA Basketball: Baylor at Gonzaga Steven Branscombe-USA TODAY Sports

As Malachi Smith let out a yell following his emphatic dunk over Keonte George at the 1:38 mark, it appeared the Zags were finally going to get their revenge for 2021. Gonzaga’s seven point lead seemed insurmountable for a Baylor offense that had only three field goals in the preceding nine and a half minutes.

Well, it seemed insurmountable for all of five seconds, which is how long it took for Baylor to inbound the ball and Adam Flager to drain a three. One possession later, Flager hit another three.

Their lead down to only one, Gonzaga tried to run out half of the remaining clock on a long static possession. One turnover, missed three, offensive rebound, and Drew Timme foul later, Jalen Bridges had a chance to reclaim the lead for Baylor. The 80% free throw shooter just had to make the front end of a one-and-one first.

Bridges’ first shot was perfect. Tie game. His second shot hit the front rim before rolling in. Baylor lead with 16 seconds left. Was it too much time for the nation’s most efficient offense?

We’ll never know, because Baylor’s leading stealer Dale Bonner wasn’t about to give up his chance to crush Gonzaga’s spirits. Bonner jumped the inbound pass, deflecting the ball off of a Gonzaga player, and almost singlehandedly securing the win. All Baylor had to do was inbound the ball one final time.

That proved more difficult than it sounds. Instead of taking a time out, Bridges tried passing the ball into George on the sideline as he was in the middle of two Gonzaga defenders. The ball rolled out of bounds off of George’s leg, and Gonzaga would once again have another opportunity to win.

As Nolan Hickman took the pass and flew past Flager with less than three seconds left, I expected him to hit an easy layup. As he drove into George down low, I expected a bail-out foul call. As he shot the ball high off the glass, I expected it to miraculously fall in.

Alas, there would be no fairy tale ending to Gonzaga’s quest for revenge. The ball fell nowhere near the basket, the buzzer sounded, and Jonathan Tchamwa Tchatchoua ran laughing onto the court. In the words of John Morris, “A ha! I love it!”.

The first half was a sloppy series of runs. After a slow start by both teams, two beautiful assists by Keonte George kicked off a 10-0 run for Baylor, and the Bears were up 19-7 in the first 7 12 minutes. You’d be excused for seeing shades of the 2021 National Championship game, where Baylor led by 15 at the same point of the game, but the likeness wouldn’t last long. Gonzaga responded with an 11-0 run, aided by five Baylor turnovers.

Gonzaga wasn’t able to take the lead, though, and Baylor ended the Zags run with their own 11-0 run. The half ended with Baylor up 38 to 33. The Bears won the turnover margin 8 to 11, out-shot Gonzaga 43% to 37%, and had three nice blocks. Gonzaga was only able to keep it close thanks to a 14-3 FTA disparity despite an even foul margin.

The second half was such a physical back-and-forth battle they needed to add three more sides to the Sanford Pentagon (didn’t expect to see a geometry joke, did you?). Gonzaga took their first lead of the second half at the 15:41 mark, and both teams kept the game within one point for most of the following ten minutes. Gonzaga’s 8-0 run late to go up 63-56 set the stage for Baylor’s dramatic comeback.

Statistically, the second half was not one Baylor should be proud of. The Bears shot 28% from the field and 22% from deep, recorded only one assist, and were out-rebounded 26 to 11. At least they only had six turnovers and made 10 of 12 free throws.

Drew Timme was a complete non-factor in the first half, and he had no points from the field until the final six minutes of the game. Timme would leave the game after fouling out in the final minute with only nine points. A lot of credit goes to Flo Thamba, who once again shut down the biggest player in the WCC.

Baylor’s standout offensive player was Keonte George. George led both teams with 18 points on 6-15 shooting (3-8 from deep). He also added six rebounds, two assists, and two steals. Defensively, Thamba led the Bears with eight rebounds and two blocks.

But thanks to Flager, Bridges, and Bonner’s late-game heroics, Gonzaga now has two heartbreaking losses to the Bears.