CHICAGO — These sure are sweet times for Loyola-Chicago.
Two last-second shots — two prayers answered — vaulted the Ramblers to the Sweet 16 and placed them right in the national spotlight.
“Coach (Porter Moser) has been talking about how ‘You think this is good? Look around. You think this is good? Well, it’s gonna get even better,'” guard Ben Richardson said. “It’s just kind of been bought into that, like put it in the bag and move on.”
The Ramblers are moving on to face Nevada after two breathtaking victories, a run that has captivated college basketball and turned 98-year-old team chaplain Sister Jean Dolores Schmidt into a celebrity.
They knocked off Miami on Dante Ingram’s buzzer-beating 3-pointer from the March Madness logo, then got the sweetest of all bounces on Clayton Custer’s jumper in the closing seconds to beat Tennessee in Dallas. On Monday, they were back home preparing for Nevada.
The Ramblers (30-5) will bring more wins than any other team in the program’s 100-year history into Thursday’s game in Atlanta, having surpassed their 1963 champions during this NCAA run.
No small accomplishment for a team that struggled for decades following a Sweet 16 loss to Patrick Ewing and Georgetown in 1985. Loyola went 14 seasons without a winning record at one point. The first few years after Moser took over in 2011 weren’t so smooth, either.
They’ve gone from 7-23 with just one win in the Horizon League in his first season to capturing the Missouri Valley Championship, from small home crowds to their first sellout in 15 years, from obscurity to center stage. It’s quite a turnaround for the Jesuit school of about 16,000 along the lakefront on Chicago’s northern edge.
For guard Lucas Williamson, it’s been a nonstop flow of well-wishes and congratulations. Whether it’s from posts on social media, students coming up to him in the dorm or professors wishing the team well in classes, they keep pouring in.
“I love all the appreciation,” said Williamson, a Chicago product.
Even former President Barack Obama gave the Ramblers — and Sister Jean — a shoutout. He tweeted after the first-round win: “Congrats to @LoyolaChicago and Sister Jean for a last-second upset – I had faith in my pick!”
“I can’t even start to put into words the outreach that we’ve had across the country from so many people,” Moser said. “When you have a media market like Chicago … you can’t put into words (what it means to the school). I’m sure in the months ahead they’ll be put into a more detailed impact. But right now, it’s just fun for the university to have this kind of national recognition.”
And he’s not shying away from the attention.
“The media scrutiny, the spotlight, it’s great for them,” Moser said. “They’re mature enough to handle it. They’ve been handling it now for a month straight. I’m not that guy that’s gonna hold back and not enjoy this journey. They’re enjoying it. But they’re gonna absolutely … be locked in, ready to go.”
That means figuring out a way to beat a team that just pulled off quite a shocker.
Nevada wiped out a 22-point deficit in the final 11 minutes to match the second-biggest comeback in NCAA Tournament history and knock out Cincinnati. The Wolf Pack (28-7) are in the Sweet 16 for the second time. Otherwise, it would have been Ramblers against Bearcats in a matchup that sure would have sparked flashbacks to the ’63 title game. That year, Loyola beat two-time defending champion Cincinnati in a landmark moment for racial equality.
“Super, super, super talented offensive team,” Richardson said about Nevada. “You’ve gotta give credit to a team like that that fought back from a huge deficit. That’s just the kind of stuff that happens in March. You’ve always gotta be ready for a team to make a historic comeback. That’s a tribute to the way they play, they play super hard, they’re a really talented offensive team, and there’ll definitely be a lot of things we have to game plan for because they’re definitely a tough matchup.”
Something else that might concern Loyola: Sister Jean had them losing in the Sweet 16 in her bracket.
“Sister Jean, she’s been our biggest supporter,” Williamson said. “And she’s definitely gonna be our biggest supporter. But we’re gonna have to bust her bracket on this one.”
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