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Gonzaga's Jalen Suggs meets his moment with NCAA tourney buzzer-beater: 'You'll never be able to relive this'

Pete Thamel
·8 min read
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INDIANAPOLIS – Gonzaga point guard Jalen Suggs grew up like so many kids in America, chucking shots at a hoop while announcing the details of the winding clock, tie score and a season hanging in the balance.

With one 40-foot flick on Saturday night, Suggs launched a parabola that bounced off the backboard and caromed into perpetuity. His heavenly heave clinched a spot in the national title game and assured that thousands of kids will be mimicking him in their driveways from Spokane to Minneapolis for years to come.

Suggs’ game winner prevented double-overtime for Gonzaga in its 93-90 overtime victory over No. 11 UCLA. It saved and may ultimately define Gonzaga’s undefeated march to history. For now, it assures a matchup of this season’s definitive top two programs — putting the Zags (31-0) 40 minutes away from history against Baylor (27-2).

But until that game tips off, America will be mesmerized by the preternatural calm of Suggs, who showed as much poise in contextualizing saving Gonzaga’s historic season as he did in doing it.

“When dreams start to become realities, and you're able to experience those things, it's special,” Suggs said. “And those are things you've got to cherish. You're never going to get another moment like this. You'll never be able to relive this.”

Suggs is a freshman point guard from Minneapolis who arrived as the most decorated recruit in school history. He projects as a top-three selection in the upcoming NBA draft. He’s also a talented football recruit who visited Alabama, got recruited by Ohio State and was heavily courted locally by Minnesota.

Gonzaga guard Jalen Suggs (1) shoots over UCLA guard David Singleton (34) to win the game during overtime in a men's Final Four NCAA college basketball tournament semifinal game, Saturday, April 3, 2021, at Lucas Oil Stadium in Indianapolis. Gonzaga won 93-90. (AP Photo/Michael Conroy)
Gonzaga guard Jalen Suggs (1) shoots over UCLA guard David Singleton (34) to win the game during overtime in a men's Final Four NCAA college basketball tournament semifinal game, Saturday, April 3, 2021, at Lucas Oil Stadium in Indianapolis. Gonzaga won 93-90. (AP Photo/Michael Conroy)

But Saturday night marks a distinct transition between Jalen Suggs being known by the basketball world vs. the entire sporting world. No matter where Suggs is drafted this year, how many All-Star games he makes or NBA titles he wins, this will resonate as the defining moment of the formative part of his career.

Suggs immediately ascends to the rare air of Villanova’s Kris Jenkins, Duke’s Christian Laettner and NC State’s Lorenzo Charles as the authors of the sport’s most breathtaking buzzer-beaters ever. All those in the most exclusive club of March assassins delivered the perfect blend of a ridiculous shots when the stakes are highest. The red backboard, signaling the buzzer sounding, will forever frame Suggs' bank gem.

Suggs, 19, spent plenty of time mimicking Jenkins, who drilled a 3-pointer to deliver Villanova a victory over North Carolina in the 2016 national title game.

“My favorite buzzer-beater?” he said. “I don't think it gets much better than Kris Jenkins, national championship game, tie game, comes out and drills it. As it goes in, cannons go off, confetti is falling. That was the one for me.”

That moment was known as BANG, for coach Jay Wright’s cool-hand reaction. Suggs' will be BANK, as he delivered his 40-footer straight from Bill Raftery’s dreams. With the loudest kiss.

Suggs immediately seized the magnitude of the moment. He sprinted to his left, bounded into the air with one marvelous leap and then jumped on the scorer’s table to celebrate. He said that was a nod to LeBron James and Dwyane Wade, two of his heroes he’d seen celebrate playoff games in the same way.

Suggs deftly articulated the collision of his childhood dreams with the realities of a defining athletic feat in real time.

“To actually live out that moment,” Suggs said. “Oh my gosh, I’m trippin’. I still don’t believe it right now, honestly… it’s not going to kick in until I wake up in the morning.”

Amid a game with 15 ties and 19 lead changes, you’re going to have to watch the documentary to capture every momentum swing, gutsy play and pivotal call. (Drew Timme’s drawn charge on Johnny Juzang to force overtime, called by official Ron Groover, will get plenty of air space.)

But the game’s second most remarkable sequence came with two minutes remaining when UCLA 6-foot-9 center Cody Riley slipped a screen and appeared poised to break a tie game with a dunk. Instead, Suggs stalked him from behind — his buddy LeBron would be proud — and bounded in the air to spike Riley’s shot.

Suggs then tip-toed on the baseline to capture the rebound and delivered a rocket one-bounce pass to a streaking Timme for a dunk, barely eluding UCLA point guard Tyger Campbell. Gonzaga went from going down two to leading 79-77 with 1:55 left.

INDIANAPOLIS, INDIANA - APRIL 03: Jalen Suggs #1 of the Gonzaga Bulldogs celebrates with teammates after making a game-winning three point basket in overtime to defeat the UCLA Bruins 93-90 during the 2021 NCAA Final Four semifinal at Lucas Oil Stadium on April 03, 2021 in Indianapolis, Indiana. (Photo by Andy Lyons/Getty Images)
INDIANAPOLIS, INDIANA - APRIL 03: Jalen Suggs #1 of the Gonzaga Bulldogs celebrates with teammates after making a game-winning three point basket in overtime to defeat the UCLA Bruins 93-90 during the 2021 NCAA Final Four semifinal at Lucas Oil Stadium on April 03, 2021 in Indianapolis, Indiana. (Photo by Andy Lyons/Getty Images)

The aggression of the block and the precision of the pass shown by Suggs likely earned him enough interest from NFL GMs to someday get him invited to the NFL combine. That, of course, happens to occur on the field here at Lucas Oil Stadium where the court is splayed out.

“I wanted to throw it,” Suggs said. “It looked wide open. And then as soon as I let it go out of my hands, [Campbell] had like another gear. It made it a lot closer than I wanted it to be. I knew coach was maybe a little pissed that I made the pass, but it got through.”

The pass sneaked through just like the Zags on Saturday, the perfect metaphor for the first night their undefeated mettle was truly tested wire-to-wire this season. Gonzaga had won 29 of its first 30 games by double digits, and the closest game they’d played this year was a five-point win in December against West Virginia, an 87-82 victory.

But this game tested every sense, taunted every fear and tempted Gonzaga to succumb to that pucker power that’s felled so many NCAA favorites over the years. (Gonzaga was essentially favored by two touchdowns, but never led by more than seven in regulation or overtime.)

But Suggs never flinched on his way to finishing with 16 points, six assists and five rebounds. Not after he appeared to tweak his ankle early. Not after Juzang scored on countless tough mid-range shot shots to finish with 29 points. And certainly not after the Zags appeared destined for double-overtime. That’s when destiny took over.

“This is something you dream up as a kid,” Suggs said, “and you practice on a mini hoop.”

Gonzaga has a chance Monday night to achieve something in college basketball that hasn’t occurred in more than four decades. The last Division I men’s college team to finish the season undefeated was Indiana in 1975-76. One shot both kept that alive and simultaneously made everyone forget, as Suggs broke both Twitter and UCLA’s heart (fifteen years after UCLA did the same to Adam Morrison and the Zags, erasing a 17-point lead).

Suggs’ appreciation of the moment was reflected in how happy he was that the shot honored his teammates, who he name-checked throughout his postgame. In many ways, Suggs and his father, Larry, recruited the Zags as much as they recruited him. They called the program, asking to be recruited. They sought the wide-open style, presence of veterans and reputation for player development.

“For the people and for the culture, that's why I chose to come here,” Suggs said. “I knew coach had the utmost trust in me and belief in me to make plays at all times.”

He then paused after hearing that Mark Few said he knew Suggs’ shot was going in when he left his hand, crediting his star guard’s “magical aura.”

Suggs laughed: “I don't know that he really believed it was going in. Because I didn't. But I appreciate it.”

Eleven years ago in the same building — when Suggs was 8 — Butler’s Gordon Hayward launched a half-court heave from nearly the same spot on the court. Just five feet back. Hayward’s caromed off the backboard, popped off the front rim and skipped away. That gave Duke the national title.

This time around, Gonzaga got the ending right. And Suggs laughed when he saw an online joke after that, “Hayward walked so Jalen Suggs can run.” He added: “I was just thinking, please, please go in. I don't want to go to another overtime. I want to get this over with.”

His wish for an ending will instead live on in driveway remakes for decades. Kids dreaming of the clock dwindling, tie game and an undefeated season hanging in the balance. And the bank attempts will provide the soundtrack that will echo for generations.

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