By Arnie Leshin
Ah, 1948, a lesson in history, year in which Democrat Harry S. Truman, known for his taylor shop in Missouri, outvoted popular Republican New York State Governor Thomas Dewey in the presidential election, and forced the Chicago Tribune and New York Times to change their early edition headlines that incorrectly had Dewey winning.
Of less notice that year was the 22-school national men’s college basketball tournament, with the final played at Madison Square Garden and Kentucky defeating Baylor, 58-42. That was 73 years ago, was the Wildcats’ initial championship and Baylor’s last trip to the finals until now.
And in 1966, the all-white Kentucky team also coached by Adolph Rupp was stunned in what was then the NCAA University Division national finals by the disrespected Texas Western team that featured an all African-American starting lineup and a bench of the same colors. Now known as Texas El Paso, the Miners have the championship trophy it in its showcase trophy case.
What brings that up, well in the 2021 final played last night at the Lucas Oil Stadium in Indianapolis, the state of Texas won only its second men’s national championship when No. 1 seed Baylor ended top-seeded Gonzaga’s perfect season, 86-70.
And when the ’66 contest was brought up during the trophy presentation, one Baylor player went back in time and called out that the Kentucky-Texas Western game that played before a standing-room-only turnout at Maryland’s Cole Fieldhouse in College Park was made into a movie.
“Do we get a movie, too,” said the player.
It got some laughs, but most important, the Bears got the most important victory since it began its program in 1902. After overwhelming 2nd-seeded Houston in their first trip to the Final Four since 1950, they went on an early run that brought leads of 18 and 20 points only to have Gonzaga trim the deficit to 10 at halftime. But once the intermission was over, Baylor took off again and never allowed the Zags to take the lead.
From start to finish, It was a mixture of outside shooting, rebounding, and stout defense that brought overall top-seeded Gonzaga its first defeat in 32 starts, and spoiled its quest for an undefeated campaign that had only been accomplished by Bob Knight’s 1976 team.
“Wow, 1948”, said leading Baylor scored Jared Butler, “I don’t know hardly anyone who was alive then”.
Butler scored 22 points and handed out seven assists. He sank 6-of-6 free throws. He was 4-for-9 from beyond the 3-point arch. He provided the leadership throughout. He was named most outstanding player of the tournament.
The Bears (28-2) were good on 30 of 65 shots from the field, converted 16-of-18 freebies, had twice as many rebounds, 34-17, and never let Gonzaga get closer than nine. Macio Teague added 19 points, point guard Davion Mitchell contributed 15 to go with seven assists, and forward Adam Flagler tallied 13.
“We went into this tournament to win games,” Butler said, “and to win the whole thing was the best thing that could have happened. But we always had the confidence and the will to do this.”
The Bears thus joined the Baylor women’s program that had won NCAA titles in 2005, 2012 and 2019. They raced to an early 9-0 lead after 2 and one-half minutes, They were up by 19 at the 7:10 mark, four more then the 15-point deficit that was the Zags’ biggest gap of the year.
Gonzaga head coach Mark Few, now 0-2 in finals, gave full credit to Baylor and didn’t blame his own team’s fatigue two days after freshman Jaylen Suggs’ tossed in a long game-winning overtime buzzer-beater in surviving 11th-seeded UCLA in the semifinals.
“Obviously,” said Few, “it’s a tough turnaround, but it was more just the aggressiveness and athleticism of Baylor. “They deserved it. Quite frankly, they were terrific the entire tournament.”
The Bears outscored all of their opponents by an average of 15 points. They began this one with nine offensive rebounds that led to nine second-chance points, and wore down Gonzaga on defense as the Zags had 14 turnovers and five shots blocked. Suggs did have the team-high 22 points but he and teammate Drew Timme, who scored a dozen, had four fouls early in the fourth quarter and rode the bench.
After that magical shot from in front of the midcourt line, Suggs later said he always wanted to get on the scorer’s table and celebrate, but instead it was Baylor. not Suggs, jumping on the scorer’s table and cheering for the fans in a huge and loud celebration. It was joy in Waco, Texas, again.
Baylor pounded the offensive glass, battled for every loose ball, never letting it get down to another Suggs miracle. It looked like Gonzaga was making a run when it cut the deficit to 47-37 at the intermission. It was making shots then and the Bears became ice-cold. But when halftime was over, back came Baylor with yet another impressive run that left the Zags frustrated.
Bears’ head coach Scott Drew pointed to his team’s performance.
“They came out, they fed off each other,” he said, “we got off to a great start and defensively, we’re pretty good.”
All season long the Bears were nationally ranked 2nd or 3rd, always behind Gonzaga. Thus, this was one of the most anticipated finals recent history, a meeting of the two best teams from the last two seasons – this one and 2020 when COVID-19 scrapped the action before tournament time.
But the game didn’t live up to the hype, and it was out of hand early. Baylor nation will remember this one, not the one in 1948.