The 82nd edition of the March Madness tournament began on March 18th, 2021. By April 4, 66 games had been played, leaving only the Gonzaga Bulldogs, the tournament’s overall number one seed, and the Baylor Bears, the number one seed from the Southern Region, to vie for the title.
On April 5th, 2021, the Baylor Bears (28-2) defeated the Gonzaga Bulldogs (31-1) by a score of 86-70, securing the university’s first men’s basketball title in the process. This matchup was one for the ages, with Gonzaga (62-2, .969 win percentage) and Baylor (53-6, .898 win percentage), the two college basketball programs with the highest winning percentages over the past two seasons, playing.
Entering the game with a 35-game win streak that stretched back to the end of last season, good for the tenth longest streak of all time, and with momentum from a crazy overtime victory against eleventh-seeded UCLA just days before, the Gonzaga Bulldogs hoped to secure their first NCAA championship title in addition to becoming the first undefeated national champion since Indiana in 1976. On the other hand, the Baylor Bears were similarly seeking their first NCAA championship win, which would make them the first Texas-based program since 1966 Texas Western, now known as UTEP, to take home the title.
In a game that had all the hype surrounding a national championship, the Baylor Bears came out swinging. Building off their momentum from a 19-point blowout victory against second seeded Houston in the Final Four just two days before, the Bears opened up the title game with a 9-0 run and later extended their lead to twelve just five-and-a-half minutes into the game. The Bears held a nineteen-point lead just before halftime, until a Gonzaga flurry brought their lead down to just ten points entering the second half.
The Baylor lead never shrunk after that; the Bears continued to pull further away with a 15-4 run midway into the second half, growing their lead to twenty with just ten minutes and thirty seconds left in the game. Every Gonzaga comeback was matched by a Baylor run. With the clock ticking down and Baylor’s lead hovering around fifteen points, the result was clear — the Baylor Bears were going to be the National Champions.
With 50 seconds left and the Bulldogs down eighteen points, Gonzaga coach Mark Few subbed out his starters. Consensus First team All-American Corey Kispert greeted the Gonzaga staff and his teammates with handshakes and hugs, before wrapping his arms around a teary-eyed Jalen Suggs, a Consensus Second team All-American whose legendary half-court game winner in the Final Four against UCLA brought the team to the championship. The Bulldogs’ perfect season and their incredible run to the championship was over, stopped by a Baylor team that never seemed to let Gonzaga get into the rhythm that had carried them throughout their unbeaten season.
Baylor held Gonzaga, the top overall seed in the tournament and the highest scoring offense in the nation coming into the game (averaging 91.6 points per game), to just 70 points, the Bulldogs’ lowest-scoring game of their season. Led by a trio of incredible guards in Jared Butler, Davion Mitchell (the Big 12 Defensive Player of the Year) and MaCio Teague, Baylor’s swarming defensive presence in the title game caused fourteen Gonzaga turnovers, many of which occurred early on in the game.
Baylor’s frontcourt trio of Flo Thamba, Mark Vital and Jonathan Tchamwa Tchatchoua dominated the offensive glass as the Bears outrebounded the Bulldogs 38-22. Vital was indeed vital to the Bears’ rebounding efforts, as he single-handedly grabbed more offensive rebounds (eight) than the entire Gonzaga team combined (five).
Jared Butler, a Consensus First Team All-American for Baylor, was named the Final Four’s Most Outstanding Player. Butler scored 22 points on 44 percent shooting behind the arc to go along with seven assists in the National Championship game, making him the first player with twenty or more points and seven or more assists in a Men’s National Title Game since NBA star Carmelo Anthony did it in 2003 with Syracuse. When asked about his team’s journey to the title, Butler mentioned that he felt that Baylor’s road to the title this year was harder than ever before.
“It was really cool to be able to say we did this in the midst of adversity, tribulations, and we were able to bring it home for Baylor,” Butler said in a post-game interview.
Despite facing three cancellations and three postponements throughout the season due to COVID-19, the Bears fought through adversity and showcased their team’s strength in a March Madness run that will be etched into history. The Baylor Bears won every game by at least nine points and beat both their final two opponents by fifteen or more points.
Baylor coach Scott Drew was tasked with a nearly impossible challenge when he first arrived in Waco, Texas — rebuilding a broken Baylor Bears program riddled by scandals such as the murder of Baylor basketball player Patrick Dennehy by teammate Carlton Dotson in 2003, which left the program in ruins. In his eighteenth year as head coach for Baylor, Drew has taken the program to new heights and has reached the ultimate goal of a rebuild — winning a national championship title. Congratulations to the Baylor Bears, 2021 NCAA Men’s Basketball Champions!