Baylor University, just a generation removed from one of the most disturbing scandals in college basketball history, captured the sport’s ultimate prize Monday night.
The Bears beat Gonzaga, 86-70, in the Division I title game at Lucas Oil Stadium in downtown Indianapolis, keeping the Bulldogs one agonizing victory short of a perfect season.
Gonzaga ended the campaign 31-1, meaning that the last top-flight college basketball team to win it all, without a blemish remains the 1975-76 Indiana Hoosiers.
Baylor raced to an early 19-point lead thanks to red-hot shooting, hard work on the boards and suffocating defense.
Gonzaga, perhaps still drained from its thrilling 93-90 overtime victory over UCLA on Saturday, looked flat from the start. The Bulldogs cut their deficit to a single digit shortly after intermission, but Baylor never panicked and kept a comfortable lead.
Capturing college basketball’s top trophy capped the 18th season of Baylor coach Scott Drew’s run, which began at the lowest point any program could have reached.
Drew took over a basketball team in Waco, Texas, mired in scandal after the 2003 slaying of Bears standout Patrick Dennehy at the hands of teammate Carlton Dotson. In the days after Denney’s slaying, then-Baylor coach Dave Bliss urged the victim’s teammates to cast him as a drug dealer in hopes of covering up illicit payments Bliss had made to the player.
Drew, the son of highly regarded Valparaiso University coach Homer Drew, was tapped with scoring wins on the hardwood while staying out of trouble. The former was no easy task, and Drew’s Bears had losing seasons in his first four years, going 36-69 in that span.
The Bears haven’t had a losing season since and have stood their ground playing in the same league with perennial powerhouse Kansas and high-revenue Texas.
Monday’s championship game brought a curtain down on the most unusual edition of March Madness in the sport’s history.
The popular tournament was canceled last year, as one of America’s first, major cultural events to be called off becauase of the coronavirus pandemic.
In hopes of controlling the virus’ spread this year, the NCAA limited team travel by staging the entirety of the tournament in or near Indianapolis.
The women’s Division I tournament was held in San Antonio while the men’s secondary competition, the National Invitation Tournament, took place just outside Dallas.
Stanford won the women’s tournament on Sunday night, edging conference rival Arizona, 54-53.
Memphis captured the NIT with a 77-64 win over Mississippi State a week ago Sunday.
The competitions did not go off without incident.
Virginia Commonwealth University had to be been pulled from a first-round men’s game because of Covid-19 protocols. Removal of the 10th-seeded Rams meant Oregon was advanced and the game declared a no-contest.
Shortly after her team was eliminated in the national quarterfinals, Baylor women’s coach Kim Mulkey said the NCAA should do away with Covid-19 testing, drawing criticism for the off-beat suggestion.