By Lenn Robbins
It was an OMG moment. The kind of moment that’s been missing for more than a year.
When the biggest shot in Gonzaga basketball history banked in off the glass ending the second greatest game in NCAA Tournament history the Zags fans jumped out of their seats, screaming, “OMG!” UCLA fans slumped in their seats, “OMFG!”
In that one moment of raw, unscripted emotion, we were reminded of what the pandemic has robbed us of.
There have been some wonderfully exciting finishes in the last year of cancelled or reconfigured events with no fans and fake crowd noise:
Hail Murray sure was thrilling, but it was a regular season game. Liverpool winning its first Premier League title in 20 years might have brought The Beatles back together, but that wasn’t a moment, rather a season-long celebration. Almost any drive Bryson DeChambeau crushed on his to winning the 2020 U.S. Open was exhilarating but by the time he got to the 18th hole the tournament was over.
When Jalen Suggs banked in a 35-foot three to beat UCLA, 93-90 in OT, and send Gonzaga to Monday night’s NCAA Tournament title game against Baylor, that was moment we’ve been missing.
And man, did it feel life-affirming to feel that way again.
“Man, that is something that you practice on your mini hoop as a kid or in the gym just messing around,” said Suggs. “And to be able to do that, it’s crazy.”
Crazy. Yep. Life’s supposed to be unpredictable if not flat out crazy on occasion. It was crazy that No.11 seed UCLA, a 14-point underdog, was threatening to end the Zags perfect 30-0 season. It was crazy that when the shot left Suggs’ hands, coach Mark Few said he knew it was good.
“He makes that shot all the time in practice,” said Few.
That’s practice. This was in overtime of the national semifinal with Gonzaga, the No.1-ranked team from start until today, about to have its season ended and talk about the Bulldogs from the West Coast Conference not being good enough regurgitated.
But Suggs, the highest-rated high school recruit (No.7) to sign with Gonzaga, wasn’t going to let that happen. He took an inbounds pass from Corey Krispert, took three dribbles, and launched.
When the ball hit the glass and banked in, a good second before the horn sounded and the backboard was bathed in red light signaling the game was headed to a second overtime, Suggs reacted like he’s been waiting for this moment his whole life.
He raced over to the press table, bounded it in one leap, raised his arms in triumph, and pointed to the Gonzaga faithful who were going bonkers. But then again, he practiced this moment on his mini hoop.
Suggs said his favorite buzzer beater was Villanova’s Kris Jenkins draining the three that beat North Carolina, 77-74 for the 2016 NCAA Tournament title. But Suggs, 19, wasn’t alive in 1992 to see Christian Laettner’s three that beat Kentucky, 104-103 in East Region final.
Suggs was great Saturday night. Laettner was perfect. He went 10-for-10 from the field, including 1-for-1 on that one three, and 10-for-10 from the line. That was a highly-anticipated matchup between two elite programs. This was No.1 vs No.11.
Because of Suggs, Gonzaga and the nation gets the game that’s seemingly been destined all season. Baylor (27-2) has been right behind Gonzaga for most of the season.
Twenty years ago no one could have predicted that these two programs would meet in the 2021 NCAA Tournament title game just as no one could have predicted a pandemic would wipe out the 2020 tournament and claim more than 554,000 Americans.
Baylor was about to become immersed in the worst scandal in college basketball history. Carlton Dotson killed teammate Patrick Dennehy and coach Dave Bliss tried to cover it up. Gonzaga was considered a quaint little program from the Northwest that could never walk with the likes of UCLA.
It doesn’t matter now. Nor does it matter whether Gonzaga-UCLA, or Kentucky-Duke was the better game. For the first time in more than a year, a sporting event brought us back to life, brought us to our feet or knees. Twenty years from now people will ask, “Where were you when Jalen Suggs that shot?”
“It’s things you dream about,” said Suggs. “When dreams start to become realities and you’re able to experience those things, it’s special. And those are things you’ve got to cherish. You’re never going to get another moment like this. You’ll never be able to relive this.”
Maybe he’s correct. But for the first time in a long time, we sure lived it.