For many of you, this is going to be rough. It is hard to move a dusty, cherished keepsake out of the back of the closet and into the garage sale or donation pile. But after Saturday night, after Gonzaga remained undefeated after a buzzer-beater from just inside half court to outlast UCLA in overtime of a national semifinal, that’s what I’m going to ask you to do.
All of you.
No matter your age, your geographical location, your alma mater or your rooting interest, the game we saw belongs in the conversation for the best college basketball game of all time. Only so many games can be considered, and this should be one of them.
We all have our non-negotiable March Madness moments that we won’t give up. Maybe you’re a sucker for an underdog, and in 1983 you were going through a bad breakup, and Jim Valvano’s reaction to Lorenzo Charles’ game-winning put-back dunk to push North CarolinaState over Houston was just what you needed to believe in yourself again. Maybe you worship at the altar of finely tailored suits and coaches who could be played by George Clooney, and you identify most with Villanova’s Jay Wright getting his first national title by knocking off North Carolina on a three-point bull’s-eye from Kris Jenkins in 2016.
Objectivity is nearly impossible with spring cleaning. Of course my wife thinks it’s time for my old pair of docksiders to go, because she wasn’t the one who wore them out walking all over Europe with a close friend. One man’s trash is another man’s treasure, as the saying goes, so I know someone out there thinks Indiana’s Keith Smart swishing the jumper to stun Syracuse in 1987 is a keeper even though it doesn’t do it for me.
As a Michigan alum, I will always overvalue Trey Burke’s three to tie Kansas in the 2013 Sweet 16. As the KU beat writer for the Kansas City Star in 2008, I saw Mario Chalmers’ miracle three erase anine-point Memphis lead in just over two minutes, lifting the Jayhawks to the national championship.
The shot that made me fall in love with this tournament was Christian Laettner’s. I was 9 years old, and when the ball went through to put Duke over Kentucky in the 1992 Elite Eight, I took off running through the house screaming. I’m sure I’m not the only person who isn’t trading in that one without a fight.
Now, we’re all just getting started having to evaluate the 2021 UCLA-Gonzaga game and where it belongs in the annals. As soon as Jalen Suggs’ shot banked in, the pressure was on to assess its shine among all the shining moments.
Duke’s Christian Laettner runs down the court after making a last-second shot to lift Duke over Kentucky in the 1992 Elite Eight.
(Amy Sancetta / Associated Press)
There will always be those who refuse to appreciate the finer things in life, almost in an effort to be contrary. Talking-head extraordinaire Skip Bayless was already at it Saturday night, tweeting that a game won on a “lucky shot” could not be the best.
But there’s a way to frame the discussion without bias, to eliminate hardening hearts who just want to hate, and it goes back to my Laettner experience:
Imagine how you’d feel about Zags-Bruins if you were 9.
Imagine your parents let you stay up past your bedtime to watch this big game in a tournament that gets so much attention.
Imagine hearing about UCLA, this 11-time national champion that somehow had a No. 11 seed next to its name, having won five games in a row to reach this stage.
Imagine hearing about Gonzaga, the ultimate underdog program that we’ve all seen sprout slowly but surely from Cinderella into one of the sport’s behemoths going for the first unblemished season since 1976 Indiana.
Imagine learning about the stars, of the freshman Suggs, who will be one of the first players taken in this year’s NBA draft; of Gonzaga’s Drew Timme, the guy with the memorable mustache who took the key charge to force overtime and then dominated the extra period offensively; of UCLA’s Johnny Juzang, the guy who couldn’t miss for three straight weeks; and of UCLA’s Tyger Campbell, the smallest guy on the floor who calmly moved the game as if on a string.
Imagine knowing that your parents were going to let you do it all over again on Monday night, and that you just might witness college basketball history. What you don’t know at 9 is that it may be a while before you feel this way again.
At 39 (I’ll round up with a May birthday), here’s what I know about UCLA-Gonzaga: It is one of four Final Four buzzer-beaters ever, it kept an unbeaten season alive into the national championship game for the first time since Larry Bird’s Indiana State team got there (and lost) in 1979, it will have analytics to back up the eye test that said it was one of the best offensive performances in history, and it will have surely featured a future NBA star in Suggs, if not others.
Try me: How many other games check all of those boxes?
Indiana State-Michigan State in 1979, with Bird against Magic Johnson, often gets credit as the most important game in college basketball history because it turned the tournament final into a shared national experience. But the Spartans won by 11.
Indiana State’s Larry Bird and Michigan State’s Earvin “Magic” Johnson during a scramble for the ball in the 1979 NCAA tournament final.
Michael Jordan’s game-winning shot in the 1982 title game brought Dean Smith his first national championship, but the final score was in the 60s, and Jordan’s shot was not a buzzer-beater.
Duke beating undefeated UNLV in the 1991 national semifinal to launch Coach K’s dynasty in Durham was seismic because of everything that followed, and the Laettner shot a year later was a huge part of continuing the magic.
Similarly, with Saturday night’s UCLA-Gonzaga game, there’s a pretty big catch regarding what happens next: The Zags have to beat Baylor for this game to remain in the conversation for best of all time.
If the Bears win, it will be another classic tournament game to be loved in the short term but discarded from our collective sports consciousness in the long term.
If Gonzaga wins, particularly if it wins without too much stress, the UCLA game would be the only one all season that tested a historic team’s mettle and nearly brought it to its knees.
Want to hold this game close until 2050? You know who to root for Monday night.