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Gonzaga finally learned the cruelty it takes to survive March Madness

Gonzaga, after years of March Madness heartbreak, destroyed Xavier with the lack of mercy all teams need to advance to the Final Four.

Gonzaga beat Xavier, 83-59, to make its first ever Final Four appearance. If you’re inclined towards Cinderella stories, the game was brutal to watch. The pumpkin-carriage never came. There was no fairy godmother. Mice didn’t become horses. No magic, no buzzer-beater to send Xavier to the Final Four. What took place was a cold and unforgiving beatdown at the hands of a better team.

The Zags dominated their smaller adversaries from start to finish. They pummeled them in the paint, buried them under an avalanche of threes, and jumped on the grave with second chance points. In treating Xavier like a rag doll, Gonzaga reasserted the oldest truth of the world — that the strong will (almost) always win, and that those who have been brutalized, when they grow stronger, will only turn around and destroy others in the same fashion that had been done to them.

It was not that long ago that Gonzaga was a low-seeder losing in the early rounds, being blown out like the Xaviers of today. The Zags were crying into their towels after meeting the likes of Davidson, Arizona, and Brigham Young, and being thoroughly embarrassed and exposed as frauds by Wichita State. In their regional semi and finals appearances, North Carolina stomped them out, Duke laughed them off, and Syracuse hurt them in the deepest manner — by giving them false hope of a victory before adhering to the law of the strong over the weak and ending their Final Four dreams last year. There’s no hope in a blowout, but a three-point defeat comes with a lifetime of “what ifs” and “what could have beens.”

In a regular season game, their shared suffering would have made Gonzaga sympathetic to the story of Xavier. The Zags would have still beaten their helpless opponents, since the game is still a competition, but maybe it wouldn’t have kept the starters in until the last minute despite being up by double digits at that stage. Gonzaga would have thought to make the scoreline respectable to preserve some dignity for a Xavier team that needed some consolation.

Yet there was no mercy, no kindness, and no consolation to be found. Gonzaga ran up the score and put J.P. Macura on the floor with a hard screen, and repeatedly blew past him as his grandfather watched and winced. And when the reserves were subbed in as a ceremonious gesture with a few seconds left, they too were ordered to keep their foot on the necks of an already defeated team. Up by 21 points and with 43 seconds left, the game out of reach and fans headed out of the arena, Rui Hachimura sunk a three-pointer for no other reason than because he could, because he was on the better team. Because he was powerful.

The single-elimination setup of March Madness strips sports of all of their pretensions and brings to the foreground their true nature, that of survival. Lose, and you disappear, win, and you live to fight another day. It reveals that what sports try to do, ultimately, is recreate the tensions of the animal kingdom, where continuity is the first and immediate purpose.

In real life, we can’t have this tension alone. We are thinking, self-aware, and emotional creatures. Living only for survival, thus enabling the strong to take advantage of and abuse the weak, is animalistic and cruel. That philosophy is a betrayal of all our reasoning, loving capabilities, and resourcefulness. In real life, there is not a first position to be chased at the expense of everybody else, though our materialistic lives may force us to believe that there is.

That compassion goes out the window inside the arena. In the single-elimination tournament, there is a definite first position. Only one team can be a champion, while the rest are losers. There are no second chances to win a game. No moral victories. And when the only option is true victory, dominance is encouraged. There is no longer a shared suffering. Instead, what Gonzaga sees in the Xavier that looks like the old version of them, is weakness to be exploited and exposed in a demoralizing manner.

So in the same way that an animal who survives an encounter with its predator, knowing the fear and bearing the scars of the incident, will then turn around and crush its prey, so too Gonzaga, in a zero-sum game, was also bound to bludgeon Xavier.

In the SAP Center, Gonzaga held the conditions of Xavier’s defeat in its hands. It could have shown a little mercy, but like a gladiator whose next day depends on the defeat of another like himself, Gonzaga, under this law of survival, destroyed Xavier before sinking a last-minute and wonderfully unnecessary three to add insult to injury. Gonzaga faced an opponent whose struggles it could otherwise empathize with, but instead brutally disposed and dragged the body of this mirror image to the adulation of the crowd.

The touted beauty of these single-elimination tournaments is that anything could happen, that Cinderella stories are possible. And to be fair, it is fun when those dreams do come true. Oregon just beat Kansas to make it to the Final Four and it was an incredible thing to watch. But even more fun, and more routine, is watching a team like Gonzaga absolutely wipe the floor with an ambitious lower seed.

And then the camera pans over to the disheveled and heartbroken fans who had dared to hope, as they are left with no other response to the stimuli than to ugly cry in public. It’s just great television. One might say that it’s one of the best parts of watching sports.