Hold it, this can’t be right, what’s going on at Loyola Marymount. This story can’t be this good, filled with one streak-breaking, odds-defying, head-shaking moment after another. Can it?
Yeah, it can. Welcome to the Loyola Marymount Lions 2023 fantasy tour.
Start with Thursday night. Saint Mary’s was in town, winner of 12 in a row and ranked No. 15. The Lions had lost 21 consecutive times to the Gaels and 32 of their last 33 against. They fell behind 16-0, which seemed routine enough.
Make that 22 in a row. Except next thing anyone knew, they had won 78-74 in overtime. Guard Cam Shelton had zero points at halftime — and 31 points after that. His layup in the final two seconds of regulation forced overtime and two more baskets and a free throw and a steal in the final minute of the extra period put Loyola Marymount ahead to stay.
Three weeks ago, the Lions showed up in Spokane to play No. 6 Gonzaga. They had lost 25 in a row to the Zags and not beaten Gonzaga on its own court in three decades. The Zags had won 75 home games in a row and 93 consecutive against unranked opponents. There was a certain unshakable order to that universe. Except the Lions won 68-67 on a banked-in runner with 13 seconds to go. Shelton again, finishing off his 27 points. The last time Loyola Marymount had upset anyone ranked near that high was USC in 1961.
📈 RANKINGS: See the latest Power 36 rankings here
In early January, the Lions played BYU, one of the traditional powers of the West Coast Conference. Since Loyola Marymount was picked to finish ninth — next to last — in the WCC, it seemed the right moment for the Cougars to ring up an early league win. Besides, the Lions had lost to them eight times in a row. Except on this night, Loyola Marymount wouldn’t go away. There was a lead change and then another and then another … 17 in all. In the end, the Lions won 64-59. That means they were destined to beat BYU, Gonzaga and Saint Mary’s all in the same season. Know how many WCC teams have done that before? None. Ever.
Loyola Marymount was in Jamaica in November as presumed fodder for the bigger names in one of those pre-Thanksgiving tournaments. Except the Lions put up 52 points in the second half to blow through Georgetown 84-66 and two days later knocked off Wake Forest in overtime, rallying with an 8-0 run in the final 80 seconds of regulation. They hadn’t beaten back-to-back opponents from the power conferences in 33 years. They hadn’t defeated an ACC team since 1966. They also beat Nevada for the first time since 1995 and opened WCC play by burying 15 3-pointers in a win at Portland.
The coach presiding over this fairy tale is Stan Johnson. When he was 10 years old, he and his family had to flee from civil war in his native Liberia, West Africa. The ended up in Utah. Now in his third season, he’s beating ranked teams up and down the WCC map. Guess had how he improved his players’ agility, quickness, conditioning and footwork last summer. Had them attend boxing training.
The 7-1 center is Oklahoma transfer Rick Issanza, from the Congo. When he came to the USA as a teenager, he had to learn English as his fourth language. After Lingala, Tshiluba and French. He hasn’t seen his family in person in 13 years.
The second leading scorer is senior forward Keli Leaupepe. When he was a kid back in Australia, he fell in love with basketball after his mother gave him old highlights of Charles Barkley to watch. Barkley wore No. 34. So now does Leaupepe.
The leading scorer is a guard who couldn’t shoot very straight last season when he transferred from Northern Arizona. Shelton’s scoring average last year was 8.4 and his field goal percentage was barely north of 43 percent overall and just south of 28 percent in 3-pointers. So he changed his shot over the summer, moved his elbow in, and now he’s the prince of darkness for the big guys in the WCC. He's averaging nearly 20 points and shooting 48 percent, including 35 from beyond the arc. In the last seven WCC games, Shelton has scored 25 or more points five times. Remember the well-chronicled Ball brothers — Lonzo, LiAngelo and LaMelo? Shelton was their high school teammate.
💥 BUZZER-BEATERS: How Wednesday's upsets felt like March
The backcourt also includes imports from the east — Ohio State transfer Justin Ahrens and Michael Graham in from Elon. They’ve become part of Johnson’s ever-changing mix. Nine players have each started at least four games.
What’s not to love? Oh, and one other thing.
The Lions have become hottest story in Loyola Marymount basketball since the legendary winter of 1990, when Paul Westhead’s foot-to-the-floor-and-bombs-away offense ran circles around the NCAA record book.
Those Lions averaged 122.4 points a game, broke 100 on 28 occasions, and won an NCAA tournament game over Michigan 149-115. They weren’t stopped until eventual champion UNLV did it 131-101 in the Elite Eight. And that magical March run was all done in heartbroken mourning after star Hank Gathers collapsed and died of a heart condition during the WCC tournament.
The 17-9 overall record and third place 7-5 WCC mark won't push them into the top 25, and it might be asking a lot for them to get through Gonzaga and Saint Mary's again in the conference tournament to grab an NCAA bid, but they do know how to steal the stage.