Saturday, March 24, 2018

Sweet home Loyola: Ramblers march to their first Final Four since 1963

Photo Credit: Brett Davis- USA TODAY Sports

By: Jeff Hauser
Twitter: @radiohauser

ATLANTA— Do you believe in miracles? The Ramblers of Loyola-Chicago sure do.

America’s adopted mid-major from the Missouri Valley Conference came into the Elite Eight matchup with No. 9-seeded Kansas State un-phased by the hype of March Madness powerhouses, securing a berth in the Final Four with a 78-62 win at Phillips Arena in Atlanta’s South Regional Final.

Kansas State’s road down south meant nothing without capitalizing in the clutch as favorites. The “Manhattan Cats” played the part by first taking care of No. 8 Creighton, and then incredible underdogs of No. 16 UMBC. But, could overcome the MVC conference champions almost from the start.  

Everything for Loyola-Chicago seemed to fall into place chasing the 50-year dream on the way to San Antonio. A confident bunch willed by the “good graces” of Sister Jean and continuing to play their style of conservative non-selfish basketball in the first half, opening up their first double-digit lead with Ben Richardson three-pointer at the 14:26 mark. All five of the Ramblers starters scored within that timeframe and would push their lead to as large as twelve in the early going.

For a team that preaches defense like Kansas State has this season, there was a lack it throughout the game’s entirety. The Ramblers settled in early knocking down nine straight jumpers, including three from beyond the arc. Before the Wildcats chipped away at the lead that was down to 5 points with 5:55 left before halftime.

Loyola led 36-24 at halftime. That’s when the Ramblers started rolling. Not backing down from the double-digit lead that peaked at 21 points, 54-33, off a Aundre Jackson layup with 13:23 remaining in the game.

In the market of buckets Kansas State couldn’t buy more than three at a time and ceased to find a rhythm offensively. Xavier Sneed and Barry Brown Jr. were held in check from becoming momentum boosters for Bruce Weber’s squad, shooting a combined 46 percent (12-of-26) from the field for 29 points and nine rebounds. The ultimate killer of the Wildcats was going 6-for-26 from three-point territory.

“It's hard to get to this spot, and right now we've got a lot of sad faces, a lot of tears, but I told them I appreciate them so much,” KSU coach Bruce Weber said about his team.

“And hats off to Loyola, coach Moser. Unbelievable. We put on the board toughness and discipline, and they were tougher than us from the get-go. They were physical, very disciplined, and then Ben Richardson stepped up and had his shining moment, his magic game, and that's what you need.”

Outside of the early stretch of luck for Loyola, the Ramblers had two runs in the second half of making four and six shots in a row. Ben Richardson scored 19 of his 23 points during the course of runs, adding six rebounds and four assists to his totals. Loyola finished with three starters in double-figures with Richardson, Marques Townes with 13 and Donte Ingram putting together a total of 12 points.

“I've got to credit my teammates for finding me,” Richardson said. “That's what's so special about our team. We've got so many unselfish guys, and we have so many weapons. And like we've been saying, it can be anybody's night. We've shown that so far this tournament. Each one of these guys has had a big night. I was in a rhythm and they were finding me, and so I just kept taking shots. They went down, and it was a big-time game, the biggest game of my life. So yeah, I guess I kind of just blacked out on some of those celebrations.”

For a fourth time in history, a No. 11-seeded team heads to the Final Four. Loyola-Chicago joins LSU in 1986, George Mason in 2006, and VCU in 2011 as the only schools to accomplish the historic feat. The lowest seed to win a championship was the 1985 Villanova Wildcats, a No. 8 seed.

“I know, I was very, emotional about the whole thing, that doesn’t stop me from talking,” Loyola- Chicago Chaplin Sister Jean said. “I want to thank everybody who had a part of this, and I keep saying ‘Be careful things will go your way-- their way and I hope we continue -- we always do one game at a time, and so we know what we want to do next.”

Loyola-Chicago awaits the winner of West Regional winner game between No. 9 Florida State and No. 3 Michigan for a Final Four matchup in San Antonio on Saturday, March 31.