If this NCAA Tournament had unfolded with any semblance of logic, if the South Regional hadn’t been taken over by something with the seeming randomness of a toddler with a paint brush and a bucket of red, we would not have been gifted with Nevada vs. Loyola Chicago on Thursday night.
College basketball needed this. Against the backdrop of stripper parties and recruiting payoffs and an FBI investigation into the sport’s long-festering underworld, centered on mostly major programs, No. 7 vs. No. 11 in the Sweet 16 was a welcome bit of goofiness.
We needed Ramblers vs. Wolf Pack.
We needed Sister Jean, Loyola’s spiritual leader and sudden international cult figure, being interviewed before the game by 8-year-old Mariah Musselman, the daughter of Nevada coach Eric Musselman, in a made-for-TV moment.
We needed this ...
“When it was 20-8, I got so nervous, I didn’t want to tell the boys but I almost had to take my nitro,” said Sister Jean.
Sister Jean Delores Schmidt, sudden 98-year-old international icon, sat in her wheelchair outside of the Loyola locker room, wearing her Loyola letterman’s jacket, smiling. Another miracle was complete.
The 11th-seeded Ramblers, channeling something otherworldly, inspiring memories of the school’s last national championship team 55 years ago, has now strung together three consecutive upsets: Miami, Tennessee, Nevada.
Total margin of victory in the three wins: four points.
Amazon Cinderella prevailed over Just Average Cinderella. Loyola Chicago held on to win 69-68 over Nevada in the South Regional semifinals at Philips Arena, advancing to the Elite Eight for the first time since 1963. Loyola has a solid chance to make it to the Final Four after ninth-seeded Kansas State upset Kentucky 61-58 in the second semi.
“It’s been a season-long journey like that, believing we can win,” said Loyola coach Porter Moser.
The darlings of the NCAA Tournament started slow, giving their poor beloved team chaplain heart palpitations.
but ran the Wolf Pack off the court at the start of the second half, hitting their first 13 shots, mostly on fastbreaks off pressure defense.
They led by as many as 12 points (40-28) but Nevada caught them at 59-all.
Nobody wanted a Loyola-Nevada game to end.
(I never expected to type those words.)
Loyola clung to a 66-65 lead. But with the final seconds ticking down, Clayton Custer found Marques Townes open in the corner. The junior guard hit a three-point shot to make it a four-point game with :07 remaining. Nevada responded with a three with one second left but there wasn’t enough time to fully recover.
“I’ll probably remember that shot for the rest of my life,” Townes said. “It doesn’t get any better than that. The guy came flying at me, I just gave him a little fake and shot it and it went in, It’s something you dream about. You’re in the Sweet 16 and you hit a big shot like that.”
Loyola stumbled out of the gate, falling behind 20-8. Have no fear. A team called the Ramblers can be expected to lose their way momentarily before finding the road back.
Nevada crumbled against Loyola Chicago’s late-half defense, turning the ball over, leading to fastbreaks in the other direction. Loyola went on a 20-4 run to take its first lead at 25-24. They outscored the Wolf Pack 12-0 to close the half and take a 28-24 lead at the break.
Nevada failed to score in the final 7:55 of the half.
For her next trick, Sister Jean levitated Philips Arena.
It’s possible this ride will end Saturday night. But why would anybody count out Loyola now?
“People call us underdogs or Cinderella, it doesn’t matter to us,” guard Donte Ingram said. “That’s the chip that’s been on our shoulder all year.”
Loyola is now 31-5. That’s one heck of a chip.
Among those in attendance were four members of the 1963 championship team, which defeated Cincinnati: Jerry Harkness, Les Hunter, John Egan and Rich Rochelle. The game was noteworthy in that it was the first NCAA tourney game that a school started four African-American players.
We’re watching history again.
“It’s a great feat for Loyola University, for Chicago, and for the world,” Sister Jean said.
A little hyperbole could be excused.
She filled out two brackets before this tournament. One had Loyola making it to the Sweet 16.
“Custer came up to me when he came off the court and said, ‘We broke your bracket Sister Jean,’ I said that’s fine with me, let’s keep going,” she said.
What of the other bracket?
“The other was the Cinderella Dream Bracket,” she said. “I have them going to the top. I had to have two for them.”
Amazingly, one is still alive.
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