In Loyola Chicago's three NCAA tournament victories this March, three different players have made three game-winners with a combined 10.1 seconds left in regulation. The Ramblers won those games by a combined four points against teams seeded a combined 17 spots higher.
That’s how Loyola Chicago advanced to the Elite Eight Thursday night as a No. 11 seed, the latest game-winner coming off the fingertips of redshirt junior guard Marques Townes as the Ramblers held off No. 7 seed Nevada 69-68.The team with a flair – no, an addiction – for the dramatic and the ultimate good luck charm – Sister Jean Dolores-Schmidt – beat Nevada by doing what it had done all game, all postseason, and all season long: by starting the domino on offense.
How does Loyola Chicago start the domino?
"Getting downhill, making plays for other guys," point guard Clayton Custer said, "not necessarily getting the assist but creating that domino where you might get the hockey assist, so you throw it to somebody, then they throw it to the next guy."
“It’s really crucial for us to get the domino flowing,” freshman Lucas Williamson explained Wednesday. “When you have the domino flowing, that’s when you find the open man and that’s when we get easier buckets. When we’re scoring easier, that means we can get back on defense and it’s just part of our philosophy.”
Starting the domino is how Loyola Chicago has five double-figure scorers, seven players who shoot 3-pointers at better than a 35 percent clip, and the seventh-best effective field goal percentage in the country. They had the best assist rate among teams in the Sweet 16, assisting on 60 percent of their made baskets this season, the 24th-best mark in the country.
"They're completely an unselfish group," head coach Porter Moser said. "They're just about not caring who gets it, and that culture and that tightness is really something."
On Thursday, it was Saturday’s hero, Clayton Custer, who set up Townes, the latest hero for Loyola Chicago. Here’s how the Ramblers put the game away with their third late-game dagger in the last eight days.
Custer had the ball with almost a six-second difference between the game clock and shot clock. Loyola Chicago led 66-65.
With 13.2 seconds left in the game, Custer called for a ball screen from Aundre Jackson to be set on Custer’s defender, Cody Martin. Martin was shading his defensive stance to force Custer to his left. Custer’s game winner against Tennessee came on the right side of the floor.
"We were just running [a play] similar to the play we ran in the Tennessee game when I made the shot," Custer said. "Just dropped a screen, wanted me to go right and just try to make a play."
Jackson approached to set the screen but Custer crossed over instead.
“Coach called for a high ball screen for Custer and Clay refused it,” assistant coach Bryan Mullins said. “He was able to get downhill.”
Custer was able to shake Cody Martin just enough to draw help-side defense from Caleb Martin, leaving Townes wide open in the right corner in front of Loyola Chicago’s bench.
"This time I didn’t really get my guy off me at all and Marques’ guy came in so I just made the right play," Custer said.
Caleb Martin ran to the corner in an attempt to recover and he bit on Townes’ head fake. Townes, who didn’t decide until April of his senior year of high school that he wanted to play college basketball instead of college football, took one dribble to his left, and squared away for a 3-pointer. All net.
“Clay made a great play, got downhill, kicked me to the corner,” Townes said. “The guy came flying at me, I just gave him a little shot fake, and I shot it, and it went in.
“It was just – that's something you dream about. You're in the Sweet 16 and you hit a big shot like that. It's just amazing. I'm just blessed to be in that position.”
Townes nearly tripped on the landing but he stayed on his feet, beating his chest as he ran down the court. Then he flexed.
"I'll probably remember it for the rest of my life," he said. "I mean, it doesn't really get any better than that."
"He was the best player on the court tonight," Custer added. "He was making plays for other guys, he was getting to the rim, he was getting shots."
With each game-winner, Loyola Chicago's Cinderella run has lived on. Three dominoes have fallen – Miami, Tennessee, and Nevada – with only one more standing between the Ramblers and the Final Four. They will play No. 9 seed Kansas State on Saturday in the Elite Eight.
"They keep believing. They keep buying in," Moser said. "So it's just grown, and we haven't thought about the total victory margin. We've just talked about putting it in the bank, next one, we're hungry, we're greedy, we want more."