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At last, Gonzaga-Baylor: A March Madness gift fans deserve, a showdown teams have earned



At last, Gonzaga-Baylor: A March Madness gift fans deserve, a showdown teams have earned

INDIANAPOLIS — The NCAA men’s basketball championship, since it became colloquially known as the NCAA Tournament, since it became officially trademarked as March Madness, has given us such an abundance of gifts it is as if Santa Claus is the perpetual selection committee chair. Each March, we look beneath the tree, and the bounty overwhelms.

But the tournament almost never — maybe never never — gives us this.

MORE MARCH MADNESS: Live scores | Updated bracket | TV schedule

It does not give us Ali-Frazier. It does not give us the 1986 Fiesta Bowl, Penn State vs. Miami. So often, that sort of sporting serendipity must be arranged, and the tournament defies design. It traffics in inspired chaos, and because that is what it promises, it rarely disappoints.

And yet somehow, in a most unpredictable tournament in this most unpredictable of seasons, the Madness has given us a championship game matching the best vs. the best: Gonzaga vs. Baylor, Monday night at 9:20 ET at Lucas Oil Stadium. The team Sporting News identified as No. 1 in the preseason against the team we proposed as No. 2. The team the Associated Press poll identified as No. 1 against its No. 2. The team the USA Today coaches’ poll projected as No. 2 against No. 1. The team the actual NCAA selection committee designated as the foremost of its four No. 1 seeds against the team that was second in that listing.

“Look, we’ve always had Baylor in the rearview mirror or whatever, in the back seat. Kind of as: If we’re going to win this thing, we’re probably, at some point, going to have to play them,” Gonzaga coach Mark Few told reporters Sunday. “Because I always thought we were the two best teams.”

Gonzaga is 31-0. Baylor is 27-2. The Zags have won their NCAA Tournament games by an average of 19.8 points but needed overtime and a desperation heave to defeat UCLA in the national semifinals. The Bears have won their NCAA games by an average of 15.2 points but required a defensive change and a late rally to turn around a Sweet 16 game against Villanova.

MORE: No losers in Gonzaga-UCLA instant classic

This is the first time in more than a decade there are two No. 1 NCAA Tournament seeds in the championship game, and only the fifth time since 1999. That year, Duke and Connecticut were first and second in the preseason SN and AP rankings, earned No. 1 seeds with brilliant seasons and then faced each other in the championship game, a classic won by the Huskies.

“It’s so hard in college basketball: 40-minute games, illnesses, suspensions, injuries, transfers, whatnot . . . anything can happen, the best team might not always win,” Baylor coach Scott Drew said. “You look at it, both teams have really handled the expectations and pressure, and both teams are in this position. We’re excited. Players always want to play against the best, and Gonzaga’s definitely been the best this year as far as haven’t been beaten yet.”

Each of the teams produced a first-team All-American, wing Corey Kispert for Gonzaga and guard Jared Butler for Baylor. The Zags were represented on the second team by center Drew Timme and guard Jalen Suggs. Bears guard Davion Mitchell was a third-teamer, also, and added to that by winning the Naismith Defensive Player of the Year award.

Gonzaga stands as the No. 1 team in offensive efficiency at 127.2 points scored per 100 possessions. Baylor is No. 2 at 124.2. Gonzaga is No. 1 in’s adjusted efficiency margin — the difference between what a team scores and what it allows — and Baylor is No. 2. Finding a means of gauging college basketball teams that does not identify these two as the season’s best teams seems a worthless exercise.

“I think you have elite on elite,” Drew said.

CHAMPIONSHIP GAME: Odds, picks, prediction for Gonzaga-Baylor 

Baylor’s defense at last showed itself to be performing at that level in the Bears’ semifinal game against Houston, with the Cougars shooting only 38.2 percent from the field and 31.6 percent on 3s. Mitchell is such an oppressive defender and Suggs such an irrepressible offensive talent that much was discussed about their matchup Sunday. But the more important matter for the Bears may be whether they can continue to enforce Kispert’s mild shooting slump. He was just 7 of 21 from deep over the past three games and averaged 15 points, down nearly four per game from his season average.

Baylor has done well in this tournament at controlling opponents’ preferred options. The leading scorers for its five high-major opponents were held an average of five points below their season averages. But secondary options have performed well, such as Marcus Sasser’s shooting show in the first half of the Houston game. That approach is a bit dangerous against the Zags, who have gotten multiple 20-point games from their Nos. 3 and 4 scorers.

“Players are going to make plays. We just want to make things as difficult as possible for them,” Drew said. “Easy buckets, transition buckets, second-chance points — those are huge in games like this.”

When the season began, this game actually was on the schedule — not for April 5, which merely was a fantasy, but for Dec. 5, when the two were in Indianapolis for a game that would have been contested at Bankers Life Fieldhouse, just a short walk from where the two will met in the season’s final game. A couple of positive COVID tests inside the Gonzaga program led to the game being canceled less than two hours before it was to commence.

Few and Drew then spent weeks trying to find a date and location for the game to be rescheduled. And, to be honest, as they worked and reports emerged they were trying to restore that game, some of us silently rooted against their success.

College basketball was the only widely popular spectator sport that saw its championship canceled in 2020 because of the pandemic — not delayed, reimagined or rescheduled but simply left vacant. For all the sport has endured over the past 13 months, as one that saw myriad regular-season games, conference tournament games and even one NCAA Tournament game canceled, the chance to have its 2021 champion decided by a meeting of the season’s established titans loomed as such an alluring remedy.

MORE: How many national champions went unbeaten in NCAA Tournament era?

“It was very serious, and we tried. We tried and tried,” Few told Sporting News. “Once we got into the first or second week of January, it was looking like the Big 12 schedule was going to be so hard to — it already had cancellations, I believe — so it was going to be hard to slide a non-league game in when they already had so many games to make up.

“Scott and I were on the phone … were planning this all the way back into July and were really trying like crazy to actively get out and talk to other coaches, who were great, about scheduling games and playing games to just, after losing the tournament last year, to just put college basketball back in the forefront of everybody’s minds.

“When we got the shocking news the morning of our game, that didn’t stop us. We kept trying. And by the time we got to mid-January, it looked pretty futile, so we just said, ‘Let’s do everything we can to make it all the way to this point.’ Pretty amazing that we both did.”

Gonzaga guard Joel Ayayi, a hero of the dazzling overtime semifinal victory over UCLA with his 22 points and six rebounds, acknowledges it was for the best, ultimately, that the December game did not occur as planned and that “it’s going to happen as the best game of the season.”

“The fans are happy. The people that love basketball are happy. I, personally, don’t really care, but it’s obviously more fun to play a team that you’ve never played before,” Ayayi said.

Few referred to the “little futile human plans” constructed months ago to put Gonzaga and Baylor on the same court that failed, whereas the tournament conjured the meeting and delivered it on the game’s biggest stage.

“God always as a plan, and as is usually the case, his plan is better than ours,” Few said. “I think the way it turned out is probably the best scenario you could possibly imagine for college basketball in general and, heck, sports in America.”

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ESPN’s Holly Rowe speaks French and English in WNBA Draft interview; Twitter reacts



ESPN's Holly Rowe speaks French and English in WNBA Draft interview; Twitter reacts

ESPN reporter Holly Rowe received many a “tres bien” from her confrères in media for conducting a bilingual interview with WNBA Draft pick Iliana Rupert, a France international, on Thursday night.

Rupert was chosen 12th overall by the Las Vegas Aces. With the draft being a virtual event for the second year in a row because of COVID-19, Rowe conducted the post-selection interview in an ESPN studio while Rupert was on camera remotely.

MORE: Why Paige Bueckers was ineligible for ’21 WNBA Draft

Rowe began the interview with “Bonsoir,” or “Good evening,” and asked Rupert in French whether she spoke English. Rupert responded in the affirmative and the interview proceeded in English.

“It’s always been one of my dreams and it’s amazing being recognized,” Rupert said. “I’m really happy to [represent] my country and I’m just excited to finally start this journey.”

After two more questions and responses in English, Rowe switched back to French for the interview’s conclusion, telling Rupert “Bienvenue,” or “Welcome,” to the WNBA. She also gave her regards to Rupert’s family.

Rowe’s media colleagues were quick with the compliments.

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‘It shows how exciting we can be!’ – Saka says Arsenal have real chance of winning Europa League after Slavia rout



'It shows how exciting we can be!' - Saka says Arsenal have real chance of winning Europa League after Slavia rout

Bukayo Saka says Arsenal have a real chance of winning the Europa League after their rout of Slavia Prague, and claims their latest performance “shows everyone how exciting we can be”.

Arsenal bounced back from a disappointing 1-1 draw against Slavia in the first leg of their quarter-final tie at Emirates Stadium by picking up a comprehensive 4-0 victory in the Czech Republic on Thursday night.

Saka was among the scorers as the Gunners booked a last-four clash with Villarreal, and he is confident they can now go all the way in the competition after flexing their attacking muscles at the Sinobo Stadium.

What’s been said?

“It was fantastic from start to finish. We did it for all the fans, they all deserve it for all the support they give us. We are really happy to progress,” the Arsenal winger told BT Sport.

“We showed real character. The first one was disallowed, Emile deserved a goal, we kept going and got the first one again. We pretty much killed the game in the first half.

“In the first leg we played well but weren’t clinical, credit to the manager and coaching staff, the way we set up, pressed, they couldn’t get out.

“It shows everyone how exciting we can be, when we play like this it is so amazing to be involved in. We have a chance of going to the final and winning this competition, it is up to us. We look forward to the next opponent.”

Arsenal put Slavia to the sword

The Gunners went at their Czech opponents right from the first whistle in the second leg clash, and found themselves in front after just 18 minutes when Nicolas Pepe dinked the ball into the net after being teed up by Emile Smith Rowe.

Alexandre Lacazette then doubled the visitors’ account from the penalty spot after Saka was fouled in the box, and the teenager got his goal moments later when he cut in from the right-wing before firing the ball low past the goalkeeper at his near post.

Lacazette added extra gloss to the final scoreline with a trademark finish 13 minutes from time as Arsenal progressed to the semi-finals 5-1 on aggregate.

What’s next?

Arsenal will now turn their attention back to the Premier League, with a home fixture against Fulham scheduled to take place on Sunday.

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What pressure? Arsenal sweeps Slavia Prague aside to set up a reunion with Emery



What pressure? Arsenal sweeps Slavia Prague aside to set up a reunion with Emery

Slavia Prague 0-4 Arsenal: Match statistics

What was all the fuss about?

It was billed as the game that would define Arsenal’s season, a night that could even shape Mikel Arteta’s future at the club.

The pressure was supposed to be on against Slavia Prague but within 25 superb minutes, the Gunners were in cruise control.

Last week’s 1-1 draw at Emirates Stadium had left the Gunners with a very simple equation going into the second leg of their Europa League quarterfinal in the Czech capital: score a goal.

Arteta’s side knew failure to find a way through a Slavia side that was unbeaten at home in all competitions this season would send it crashing out of the tournament and leave an already disappointing season in tatters.

Serious questions were being asked of the players after the way in which they threw away a lead in the closing stages of the first leg to hand Prague the advantage going into Thursday night’s return fixture.

But in the space of six scintillating first-half minutes, those questions were answered in emphatic style.

The brilliant Emile Smith Rowe had already had a goal ruled out for the tightest of offside calls before Nicolas Pepe gave the visitors the lead on 18 minutes, thus canceling out Slavia’s away goal.

Alexandre Lacazette then struck from the penalty spot three minutes later to make it 2-0 on the night before Bukayo Saka added a classy third goal – all within 24 minutes of the game getting underway.

It was game, set and match Arsenal before we had even reached the half-hour mark.

Even in his wildest dreams, Arteta would never have imagined such an impressive start from his side, especially with his captain and talisman Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang missing due to contracting malaria while away with Gabon on international duty.

This was a major statement from his side and another example of why there is genuine belief within the club that things are heading in the right direction under the Spaniard.


The abject performances throughout November and the majority of December may have led to a hugely disappointing Premier League campaign, but the improvement since Christmas has been undeniable.

Since beating Chelsea 3-1 on Boxing Day, Arteta’s side sits fourth in the form table, with only Manchester City, Manchester United and West Ham picking up more points.

And now the Gunners have booked their spot in the Europa League semifinals, where they will meet Unai Emery’s Villarreal.

Clearly, there is still much for Arsenal to improve on and failure to go on and win the Europa League will more than likely leave it facing up to a season without European competition for the first time in 25 years.

For a club of Arsenal’s stature, that is not good enough, but there are still plenty of reasons for optimism and they were all on show as Prague was blown away in its backyard.

Arsenal’s homegrown youngsters have been the catalyst for the improvement since Boxing Day and one again they led the charge – with academy graduates Smith Rowe and Saka proving far too good for the Czech champions.

Immediately after seeing a goal ruled out for offside, Smith Rowe waltzed through the Slavia defense before working the ball to Pepe, who showed wonderful composure to score his fifth Europa League goal of the season.

Saka then took center stage, winning a penalty, which was converted by Lacazette, before scoring the third himself with a fine finish from the edge of the box.

At that point, the game was done and dusted. Arsenal had done its job and it cruised through the remainder of the quarterfinal, with Lacazette putting the gloss on a fabulous night’s work with a fourth goal on 77 minutes.

All eyes now turn to the semifinal against Villarreal and the return of Emery, the man Arteta replaced just over 16 months ago.

Emery led Arsenal to the Europa League final in 2019 and now he is the man standing in their way of repeating the trick two years later.

A return to the Champions League is now within touching distance for Arsenal. Just three games stand between the Gunners and a seat back at Europe’s top table.

They went to Prague with their season on the line and they return to London with the dream still alive.

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