The fans already were in full throttle, on their feet and ready to celebrate the long inevitable conclusion. Not Mark Few. Mark Few was having a conniption. Up 18 points in a game long decided, the Gonzaga coach jumped up off of both feet, purposefully landing hard, a full toddler foot-stamping meltdown, furious at a lousy pass that Joel Ayayi had made. Two minutes later, when an inability to inbound the ball forced the Zags to call timeout, Few railed away, the first time he showed even the slightest bit of frustration in a huddle.
Eventually the coach called off the heat, waving to his subs to enter the game and give his starters an ovation. One by one they exited in front of Few, each embracing the coach in a hug — except Ayayi, who walked down the bench and missed the coach. It didn’t look like a brush off or a diss, just a miss in the commotion. But after Few had dished out his hugs, it appeared to dawn on him he had missed Ayayi. He turned and looked, finally spying his junior guard at the top of the socially distanced bench. He walked up the risers, and wrapped his arm around Ayayi, the player returning the embrace in full.
This is the unique and fine line that separates Gonzaga from everyone left in this NCAA Tournament: to realize the highest of expectations, but somehow enjoy the ride. Every other team left has a plucky story — a program rejuvenation or a coach finally making his first Final Four. Just reaching the national semifinals is true cause for celebration. Houston is in after Kelvin Sampson brought the program back from roadkill. UCLA does not exactly read plucky underdog, but the Bruins are on an 11-seed run from the First Four. Even Baylor, 1A to Gonzaga’s 1 all year, can enjoy the sweet taste of its first Final Four since 1950 and Scott Drew’s first appearance there.
Once the pluckiest story of them all, Gonzaga comes to the final weekend of the season like the basketball bullies. Few not only has been to a Final Four, he also has led his team to six consecutive Sweet 16s, the only program in the nation to do that. This year the Zags have run roughshod over everyone, and since arriving in Indianapolis have downright demoralized opponents, making every game feel like a 1-16 walkover. After their 85-66 win against USC in the Elite Eight, the Zags are beating NCAA opponents by an average of 24 points. The record for a six-game tournament is 21.5.