ATLANTA – After three NCAA tournament victories in a row decided by the thinnest of margins, Loyola Chicago decided it was done tempting fate with yet another dramatic game-winning shot attempt as the Ramblers ran past No. 9 seed Kansas State 78-62 in the South Regional final.
The 11th-seeded Ramblers became the first team in this year’s field to secure its berth in the Final Four in San Antonio, where they'll face No. 3 seed Michigan, and the first team to make the Final Four as a No. 11 seed since VCU in 2011.
The Ramblers came out strong out of the gates, leading 12-5 at the first media timeout. Every Loyola Chicago starter had scored and three of the team’s five field goals had been assisted. Kansas State was just 2-of-7 and Loyola Chicago had grabbed all five of the Wildcats’ misses.The game’s opening five minutes were a SparkNotes version of nearly a wire-to-wire, dominant performance for Loyola Chicago that was fueled by unselfish passing, high-percentage shots and a strong effort on the glass.
Kansas State led for 38 seconds. Loyola Chicago was in front for more than 38 minutes.
The Wildcats made a desperate comeback attempt and their full-court pressure sparked a 14-3 run that cut the Ramblers’ lead to 12 points entering the under-four media timeout. Every time Loyola Chicago exits the under-four timeout this season, its players hold up the number four.
"We hold up 'four' and we say this is about defense now," said freshman center Cameron Krutwig, who finished with nine points and seven rebounds. "It's about getting stops and getting good offensive possessions."
Loyola Chicago locked in and did just as Krutwig said, making 12-of-15 free throws in the game’s final four minutes, while holding Kansas State to 3-of-11 shooting to finish the game.
After Donte Ingram made the first of two free throws with 34.6 seconds left to extend the lead to 15, Kansas State coach Bruce Weber waved the white flag, calling off his team’s full-court pressure and emptying his bench so his reserves could soak up their fleeting NCAA tournament in-game experience.
Within a matter of seconds, Loyola Chicago’s players were once again all holding up the number four, only this time it was in reference to the Final Four that was no longer a distant dream but their made-for-Hollywood reality. The final buzzer had sounded and almost instinctively the players ran from the bench to the Loyola Chicago fans in the stands across the court.
They jumped and they hugged. They waved their towels and they yelled.
Coach Porter Moser climbed over press row and into the stands to hug his wife, Megan, as Kool & The Gang’s “Celebration” blasted over Phillips Arena’s P.A. system. Loyola Chicago celebrated like it was 1963 – the last time the Ramblers made the Final Four, when they went on to win the national championship.
How does a No. 11 seed that was picked in the preseason to finish third in its own conference celebrate when the group makes a Cinderella run to the Final Four?
Ben Richardson, who was named the South Region’s Most Outstanding Player after scoring a season-high 21 points in the win, climbed on top of press row, in front of the sizable Rambler contingent that had traveled to Atlanta, and let out a primal scream.
Richardson said his brother and sister-in-law drove their cousins in a Sunseeker RV through the night on Friday into Saturday morning, "crushing Monster Energies," just to watch him play. His brother had despositions in Kansas City on Friday so Richardson and the Ramblers had to beat Nevada in the Sweet 16 for his brother to make it to the South Regional. In total, the region's Most Outstanding Player had more than 25 friends and family members in attendance.
Moser, the 14-year veteran head coach who’s coaching in his first NCAA tournament, also turned to the Loyola Chicago faithful, desperately needing someone to pinch him to prove that, yes, this really happened.
“Are you kidding me? Are you kidding me!” he asked, then merely yelled in jubilation, to no one in particular.
“Are you kidding me?” pic.twitter.com/ZXfzE5CKN4— Andy Wittry (@AndyWittry) March 25, 2018
As Loyola Chicago’s coaching staff, then the entire Moser family, posed with the South Regional trophy, players Aundre Jackson, Donte Ingram, Adarius Avery, and Cameron Satterwhite gathered on the makeshift podium that was set up on the court and they tried to create the perfect celebratory Instagram picture.
One at a time, they held and kissed the trophy while the other players picked up handfuls of confetti that had fallen and threw it in the air to let it slowly flutter to the ground once again. Because while they’ve gone from the Missouri Valley Conference champs to arguably the biggest story in sports in a matter of two weeks, the Ramblers, just like anyone else, can’t pass up the chance to share their latest achievement on social media.
Behind the scenes of creating the perfect Instagram picture. pic.twitter.com/I1v8VyYrMF— Andy Wittry (@AndyWittry) March 25, 2018
Ingram jumped up and down in excitement when he saw the results of his amateur photography skills.
Marques Townes, the redshirt junior guard in his first year of eligibility at Loyola Chicago after transferring from Fairleigh Dickinson, answered a FaceTime call from former teammate and NBA All-Star Karl-Anthony Towns. Townes had done a little bit of everything in the win, scoring 13 points, grabbing four rebounds and dishing out three assists.
“This is crazy, bro,” he said, struggling to hear his friend over the buzz of the Ramblers’ locker room. “I still can’t believe it.”
In every direction of the court at Phillips Arena, then Loyola Chicago locker room, there was another reminder of the improbable two-week run for the Ramblers that will live on to next weekend. Team chaplain Sister Jean Dolores-Schmidt, like the Pied Piper, drew a herd of followers everywhere she went.
Pieces of the court's nets were tied around players' hats and wet spots marked the clothing of almost every Loyola Chicago player and staff member from when, presumably, every water bottle in sight was emptied when Moser entered the locker room after the win. The roar of the celebration spilled into the hallway outside.
“He’s had a couple kind of start-overs," Loyola Chicago Director of Athletics Steve Watson said. "He was charged with development of a team in the Horizon League, then we shift up to the Missouri Valley Conference, so we took another step up and so you have to be patient. We’re going to do it the right way, so it’s going to take a little bit of time.”
Well, that time has come. It's in the here and now, in Moser's seventh season with the school — six years removed from a seven-win season when Loyola Chicago was a member of the Horizon League.
"I was sold by Coach Moser's energy and his passion for the game," said Richardson, when asked what made the college senior commit to Loyola Chicago. "It really drew me in and I could feel the energy and I believed in him. It's crazy, I would have never thought that we would get here but I knew that we would do something special and we could have a special team.
"When you have a leader that's so bought-in and so committed to you in getting you better, then you have a team that buys in all together, anything's possible."