INDIANAPOLIS — As Gonzaga made its way through this pandemic season, with its stops and starts and tenor of uncertainty, it eyed an opportunity to stamp the season with a different sort of historical marker — an unbeaten season.
Since the start, when they began the season as the top-ranked team in the country, the Zags rolled over every obstacle put in their path, a scintillating offense eviscerating every opponent and showing almost no signs of vulnerability during their nearly three-week stay here for the N.C.A.A. tournament.
Then late Saturday night, the Zags did what they hadn’t had to do all season — survive.
And they did so in spectacular fashion, with Jalen Suggs banking in a 40-footer at the buzzer to give Gonzaga a 93-90 overtime victory over U.C.L.A. in a national semifinal at Lucas Oil Stadium.
Suggs’ shot, with two Bruins in front of him, came after Johnny Juzang had erased the last of a 5-point deficit in the final minute of the extra period by following his own miss, the last of his game-high 29 points. Suggs took the inbound pass and after a couple dribbles launched his shot from just past midcourt.
As it went through, Suggs raced atop a table across the court from the Gonzaga bench and thrust his fists in the air as his teammates gave chase. Meanwhile on the court, the Bruins stood in disbelief, hands on their heads or the hips. As Gonzaga Coach Mark Few walked to midcourt to shake hands with Mick Cronin, his counterpart, all he could do was hold his arms out and shrug before the two embraced.
Gonzaga, which is 30-0, advances to play Baylor on Monday night — a matchup between the two best teams in the country for most of the season and a redux of their scheduled matchup in Indianapolis in early December that was wiped out 90 minutes before tipoff because of positive coronavirus tests within the Bears’ traveling party.
The game will have a hard time being as riveting as the Zags’ win over the 11th-seeded Bruins, who entered the game as two-touchdown underdogs, the biggest spread in a Final Four in 25 years.
The Zags will be attempting to become the first team since 1976 to win a championship with an undefeated season. Two teams had reached the semifinals unbeaten since Indiana, but that’s where runs ended for Nevada-Las Vegas in 1991, when it was shocked by Duke, and Kentucky in 2015, when it went down to Wisconsin.
Gonzaga had looked just as formidable all season as those U.N.L.V. and Kentucky teams, which were stocked with future pros. The Zags had only one game closer than double digits — back in early December — and they had rolled into the Final Four with victories by 43, 16, 18 and 19.
Coach after coach who looked at Gonzaga’s film came away with a sobering assessment: they were the best passing team they’d ever seen in college basketball. Center Drew Timme was lethal around the basket and if teams dared double team him, he was an able passer and soon the ball was buzzing around the perimeter until the desired result was achieved: a layup or an uncontested 3-pointer.
But the Zags nearly met their match in the Bruins, who with their rich basketball history and record 11 men’s national championships, were in the unaccustomed role of long shots.
U.C.L.A. entered the tournament on a four-game losing skid, and had to first get through a play-in game against Michigan State, whom they beat in overtime, to reach the round of 64. The Bruins then upset second-seeded Alabama, again in overtime, and knocked off top-seeded Michigan with a late defensive stand.
They nearly pulled off their biggest shocker on Saturday night.
Coach Mick Cronin had three objectives: keep the pace controlled, minimize turnovers that would fuel Gonzaga’s fast break and play the same unyielding defense that had gotten them to this point. They executed almost perfectly — and were urged on by a contingent of U.C.L.A fans.
It made for tense, riveting theater almost from the opening tip off, only getting more dramatic as the night wore on.
If Suggs won the game with his long shot, he may have saved it with his defense, preventing U.C.L.A from taking the lead late in regulation when he swooped in to block U.C.L.A. center Cody Riley’s shot at the rim inside the final minute.
The Bruins did have a chance to win it as their star, Johnny Juzang, wound his way through the Gonzaga defense in the final seconds of regulation, but he was whistled for charging when he landed in a heap among a trio of Zags under the basket with 1.1 seconds left.
In the overtime, Gonzaga ran screen and rolls to get Timme away from Riley and then let their 6-foot-10 center go to work in the post on smaller Bruins. He scored their first 6 points of the extra period to put Gonzaga ahead, 87-83.
U.C.L.A. drew closer when Riley, after Tyger Campbell drew the defense, sank a baseline jumper, and it had a chance to tie on its next possession but Juzang missed a short transition floater with 1:38 remaining in overtime. Andrew Nembhard seemed to put Gonzaga in control when he knocked in a 3-pointer with 1:11 left to put Gonzaga ahead by 90-85.
But the Bruins, as they have done all tournament, had an answer. Coming out of a timeout, Jaquez knocked in a 3-pointer from the wing to draw the Bruins within 90-88 with 48 seconds left. When Kispert missed a 3-pointer, they hustled into the frontcourt and put the ball in the hands of their best player, Juzang, who drove into the lane and missed a short jumper but collected the rebound and put it back in.
The Zags’ undoing in years past has often been talented opponents with a physical, relentless defense. On nights when their free-flowing offense couldn’t escape the muck, they have rarely had the type of defense that could win those types of games. It is what undid Gonzaga in their last tournament appearance two years ago, when as a No. 1 seed they were upset by Texas Tech in the West regional final.
This year, Few insisted, was different.
The Zags, analytically at least, rated as among the nation’s best defenses and in Suggs, a freshman, they had what has for them been a rare player — an elite athlete with a football player’s mentality. The problem against the Bruins is that there was only one of him. U.C.L.A. was able to isolate Juzang on whoever was guarding him or let Cody Riley, the Bruins’ bulky left-handed center, draw Timme out of the paint and shoot jumpers over him. They also picked on Kispert, who was a defensive millstone.
Yet, when it mattered most, it wasn’t the defense that saved its season.