Brandon Clarke produced a virtuoso performance to catapult the Gonzaga Bulldogs into the Sweet 16 for a fifth consecutive year. The Bulldogs knocked off the Baylor Bears 83-71 to punctuate another successful tournament stint for Gonzaga in Salt Lake City.
Clarke continues to rewrite the Gonzaga record books, setting a new program record for points in a tournament game with 36, to go along with 8 rebounds and 5 blocks. Corey Kispert excelled on the wing with 17 points, 7 rebounds, and 5 assists along with dynamic defense. Mark Vital and Makai Mason each scored 17 points for the Bears in a losing effort.
It was all Gonzaga in the opening 20 minutes. After some cagey opening possessions, Gonzaga put together an 11-0 run after the first media timeout thanks to a combination of heads up defense and the killer transition game that has flummoxed opponents all season. By the midpoint of the first half, the Zags had seized control of the game and established a 21-9 lead.
Just about everything was going Gonzaga’s way early on. Even an off-target Geno Crandall lob attempt found its way to the bottom of the basket for a three. Baylor attempted to gain a foothold in the game by varying its defensive looks between man and zone, but Gonzaga seemingly had an answer every time down the floor. Perkins put on a clinic with running the offense, and Clarke almost single-handedly broke Baylor’s spirit with his energy in the paint.
While Clarke had the highlights, it was a complete 20-minute performance from the whole team in the first half. Kispert was excellent, and his three-point shooting forced Baylor to stretch its defense which only created more space inside for the frontcourt. The Bears struggled to manufacture very few clear looks at the rim on the rare occasions they were able to get in the paint thanks to Gonzaga’s team-wide defensive effort.
Despite Hachimura missing out on most of the fun in the first half due to foul trouble, the Zags went into the break with a 39-23 lead. That margin felt like it could have been even bigger too had it not been for some miscues from Gonzaga in its last few possessions of the opening half.
Baylor came out firing to start the second half and cut the deficit down to six points after just two minutes of play. Facing a suddenly revitalized Baylor squad that was sniffing an upset, the Zags turned to Clarke to right the ship. As has been the case for much of the season—he delivered. Clarke scored 8 of Gonzaga’s next 10 points, which included a savage tip dunk that elicited a moment of silence from the broadcasters and took the wind out of Baylor’s sails.
The Bears made a few more mini pushes during the half thanks in large part to a series of puzzling brain farts from the Zags. But while Gonzaga was never able to muster a true knockout punch, there was no chance that Clarke would allow this game to end without Gonzaga emerging as the winner. It was truly one of the most astonishing performances in recent tournament history from one of the most unassuming stars in college basketball.
The dominance on display during the first half never fully replicated itself in the second stanza. Nevertheless, the Zags handled their business and secured the program’s fifth consecutive appearance in the Sweet 16—a claim that no other school can make. Last year’s tournament run ended in that round against the same Florida State team that Gonzaga will see once again in Southern California next week. The Zags will be looking to write a different script this time around.