Gonzaga, Jalen Suggs enter March Madness lore on instant classic shot

INDIANAPOLIS — Jalen Suggs sank into a chair for his postgame Zoom press conference and just started laughing. He leaned back and looked at the ceiling, the picture of giddy disbelief over what he’d just done. Immortality had arrived so suddenly that there was no time to process it.

“I don’t think it will fully hit me until I wake up in the morning,” the Gonzaga freshman said. “Oh my gosh, I’m tripping. I still don’t believe it right now.”

Suggs had just joined Christian Laettner and Kris Jenkins among the greatest shot makers in men’s NCAA tournament history—maybe even moved ahead of them. His 40-foot, banked-in bomb to beat incredibly game UCLA lacked the win-or-lose desperation of Laettner’s against Kentucky in 1992, since the game was tied. And it did not decide the national championship, as Jenkins’s shot did against North Carolina in 2016, since this was merely a Final Four semifinal. It also was a bit luckier, going off the glass as opposed to a clean swish.

But Suggs’s walk-off launch was longer and harder than both of them. It sustained an undefeated season. It will now be replayed and re-enacted for decades in gyms and on playgrounds and in backyards everywhere. This was the next epic shot in a tournament that has a remarkable ability to reliably produce goosebump moments.

Yet as wild as this particular tournament has been, so rife with upsets and surprises, the one thing it had lacked was a buzzer-beating winner. Alabama had a three-pointer at the horn against UCLA in the Sweet 16, but that was to tie and force overtime—whereupon the Bruins dispatched the Crimson Tide. It took until the 65th game for one to end on a shot that sent one team into ecstasy while ripping the heart out of the other.

This entire breathless masterpiece of a game will go down as one of the greats in the history of college basketball. Gonzaga 93, UCLA 90, was vast and contained multitudes of memorable moments—most of which will be erased over time by the stunningly finality of the last shot. Having attended both this and the Kentucky–Duke game decided by Laettner, the similarities are striking.

Gonzaga, like Duke, was ranked No. 1 all season, favored to win the national title and trying to make history: the Zags as the first unbeaten men’s champion in 45 years, the Blue Devils attempting to be the first repeat champs since UCLA in the early 1970s. Gonzaga, like Duke, was heavily favored against a blueblood that had overcome considerable odds and was cast in the unaccustomed underdog role—the Bruins as a No. 11 seed that barely made the tournament; Kentucky as a program rebuilding after massive NCAA sanctions. Gonzaga, like Duke, wound up being pushed to the literal last second.

That ’92 game in Philadelphia went into overtime. So did this one. In the latter stages of the second half and throughout the extra five minutes, the underdog simply kept making shots and refused to fold, to the astonishment of everyone. At several junctures, a seismic upset seemed increasingly likely.

In both games, the offensive execution and playmaking was extraordinary: Duke and Kentucky combined for 47 assists on 71 baskets; Gonzaga and UCLA combined for 47 assists on 71 baskets. Duke and Kentucky combined to shoot 60.7 percent; Gonzaga and UCLA combined to shoot 58.2 percent. In both games, there was grousing about the officials helping out the favorite—Laettner not being ejected for stepping on the chest of Aminu Timberlake, the Zags getting several kindly first-half calls.

Duke had less time on the clock (2.1 seconds) but the benefit of a timeout to set up its last play—the Grant Hill football pass to Laettner for the turnaround jumper. Gonzaga had three seconds when Corey Kispert took the ball out of the net and inbounded to Suggs, who did all the heavy lifting thereafter—two dribbles left-handed, a crossover into one more dribble with his right, then into a pull-up not far past midcourt.

In both games, the maker of the hero shot wound up running away from his teammates. Laettner turned and sprinted the other direction from everyone in a Duke uniform until he was caught. Suggs kept moving to his left as he watched the shot and then, like the incredibly fluid athlete he is, leaped once on the court and a second time onto the scorer’s table facing the Gonzaga fan section.

UCLA’s Johnny Juzang, like Kentucky’s Sean Woods, went from his own potential immortality to being the unfortunate set-up man for something larger to come. Juzang, who was transcendent in this tournament, scored his 28th and 29th points of the night on a putback of his own miss to tie the game at 90. Woods’s final shot of a 21-point night was a floater over Laettner that caromed off the glass and in.

The losing coach that night in Philadelphia was Rick Pitino, who did some of his greatest work in even giving his team a chance to win. The losing coach in Indy was Mick Cronin, a former Pitino assistant who refers to Rick as “an older brother.” There’s little doubt Cronin got a consoling call or text from Pitino late Saturday night.

The winning coaches both exuded confidence to their teams when they might not have really felt it internally. Mike Krzyzewski famously told his Duke team in the huddle after Woods’s shot, “We’re going to win the game.” Few, whose team had won a succession of blowouts, told his players heading into overtime, “Hey, we’re fine. We’ve just got to keep getting stops. We’re going to win this thing.”

Gonzaga-UCLA was closer throughout than Duke-Kentucky. The Bulldogs and Bruins staged an incredibly taut game throughout, with neither team leading by more than seven points at any point in time. The Blue Devils led the Wildcats 50-38 in the second half in ’92 before Kentucky rallied to make it a thrill ride at the end.

In both cases, the thrill of incredible sudden victory was tempered slightly by the knowledge that there still is work to do to win it all. Duke ’92 had to go to the Final Four and win two more games, beating Indiana and Fab Five Michigan. Gonzaga must come down from the pink clouds of euphoria by Monday night and face a Baylor team that was overpowering earlier Saturday.

For the Zags, the concern will be stepping up another level in performance after a withering battle two nights before. Baylor had by far the easier route to Monday night. Gonzaga had to dig in over and over against UCLA, failing to pull away and then needing a gutsy move by Drew Timme to step up and take a charge from Juzang at the end of regulation. Even after grabbing a five-point lead in overtime, Gonzaga couldn’t keep UCLA from tying the game.

But Gonzaga had Jalen Suggs at the end. When he rose and fired, Few was not far from him on the sideline. “I was staring right at it,” he said. “I was like, ‘That’s in.’ And it was.”

Suggs will go on to make millions of dollars in the NBA soon. But he may never have another night like this one, when he and Gonzaga earned a place in NCAA tournament lore with an all-time ending to an epic game.

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