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Corey Kispert waves to a small crowd gathered Tuesday at McCarthey Athletic Center to welcome home the Gonzaga basketball team from the Final Four in Indianapolis. (Colin Mulvany, The Spokesman-Review)

INDIANAPOLIS — Gonzaga handled everything in its path — ranked opponents, silent arenas, COVID-19 curveballs and the pressure that accompanies an unbeaten record and season-long No. 1 ranking — except for the final exam.

The only thing the Zags couldn’t handle was Baylor, which saved its best for last with a resounding 86-70 win in Monday’s national championship at Lucas Oil Stadium.

The bulk of the Zags’ milestone-filled season was brilliant, but they were clearly outplayed on college basketball’s biggest stage. Senior wing Corey Kispert and head coach Mark Few addressed both ends of the spectrum in post-game Zoom comments while Baylor snipped the nets on a court coated with green-and-gold confetti.

“It’s a really, really tough one to end a storybook season on,” Few said. “But listen, Baylor just beat us. They beat us in every facet of the game and deserve all the credit.”

The Bears’ fast start, adhesive defense and edge in athleticism put Gonzaga on its heels. Baylor led by as many as 19 in the first half and by 20 in the second half.

“They punched us in the mouth right at the get-go,” Kispert said. “And it took a long, long time for us to recover and start playing them even again. But then it was too late.”

A staple of Gonzaga’s season was an explosive offense that produced game-changing runs. The Zags’ biggest scoring run was six points against the Bears, who swatted five shots and forced 14 turnovers.

Gonzaga, coming off an emotional overtime win against UCLA, seemed to be a step behind the Bears, who coasted past Houston 78-59 on Saturday.

“Obviously it’s a tough turnaround. It was more just the aggressiveness and the athleticism of Baylor,” Few said. “So I don’t think that was because of fatigue at all.”

Baylor ended the Zags’ bid to become the first undefeated national champion in 45 years. Gonzaga (31-1) seemed oblivious to pressure game after game, but Baylor applied serious stress by racing in front 11-1.

The Bears led for 39 minutes and 27 seconds. Gonzaga closed within 58-49 with 14:30 left — the only time the deficit was under 10 points over the final 35-plus minutes.

“It’s weird, I never felt like we played with that weight all year,” Few said. “I always felt like we were the aggressor, I call it attack mode. And we just ran into a team that was the aggressor, clearly.”

After the game, players were finally able to reunite with family members face-to-face after weeks, even months of being separated due to COVID protocols. Several posted family pictures on social media.

The season didn’t end the way he wanted, but Kispert was thankful to be part of a special team. Several Baylor players gave Kispert a hug near midcourt as he waited to exit the floor in the final minute.

“I’m so grateful for being able to wear this name on my chest and so grateful to all the people who made this season happen in Spokane,” he said. “I’m grateful to our guys for sticking with it through the very end, and a lot of the days weren’t easy. There were a lot of really tough ones. But I’m looking back and this has been by far the most special six months of my life.”

Copyright 2021 Tribune Content Agency.