ATLANTA – Porter Moser stood in front of the scarf-clad Loyola cheering section, a bit dazed but beaming from ear to ear.
“Are you kidding me! Are you kidding me!” the Ramblers coach screamed over and over.
Loyola is headed to the Final Four.
An improbable NCAA Tournament took its craziest turn yet Saturday, when Ben Richardson scored a career-high 23 points and the 11th-seeded Ramblers romped to a 78-62 victory over Kansas State, capping a stunning run through the bracket-busting South Regional.
The Ramblers (32-5) matched the lowest-seeded team to reach the Final Four, joining LSU (1986), George Mason (2006) and Virginia Commonwealth (2011). Those three all lost in the national semifinals.
Don’t bet against Loyola, which emerged from a regional that produced a staggering array of upsets. The South became the first regional in tournament history to have the top four seeds – including overall No. 1 Virginia – knocked out on the opening weekend.
In the end, it was the Ramblers cutting down the nets.
After three close calls, this one was downright easy.
“We believed that we could do something like this – do something really special– because we knew we had such good chemistry and we’ve got such a good group,” said Richardson, named MVP of the regional. “Everyone would say we were crazy. If we said this was going to happen, people would call us crazy, but you’ve just got to believe.”
No one believes more than their 98-year-old team chaplain, Sister Jean Dolores Schmidt, who led a prayer in the locker room before the game. Later, she was pushed onto the court in her wheelchair to join the celebration when it was done.
Sister Jean donned a Final Four cap – she even turned it around backward, just to show the kids that she’s hip – and gave a gleeful thumbs-up.
She’s already looking forward to a bigger game next weekend.
“I’m going to San Antonio,” she said. “That’s going to be great.”
Also joining the celebration were several players from the Ramblers’ 1963 national championship team, which played one of the most socially significant games in college basketball history on its way to the title. It was known as the “Game of Change,” matching the Ramblers and their mostly black roster against an all-white Mississippi State team at the height of the civil rights movement, setting up an even more noteworthy contest three years later. Texas Western, with five African-American starters, defeated Kentucky in the 1966 national championship game.
Les Hunter, a member of that ’63 team, said these Ramblers are capable of bringing home another title.
“I think they’re the best right now,” Hunter said. “They work so well together. They can play with anybody – anybody – right now.”
Even with a title on its résumé, this Loyola performance came out of nowhere. The Ramblers had not made the tournament since 1985 until they broke the drought by winning the Missouri Valley Conference.
Then, as if benefiting from some sort of divine intervention, the Ramblers won their first three tournament games by a total of four points.
Finally, with the Final Four on the line, they turned in a thoroughly dominating performance against the ninth-seeded Wildcats (25-12), the other half of the first 9-vs.-11 matchup in tournament history.
Not the least bit intimidated, Loyola came out in attack mode right from the start against a Kansas State team that rode a stifling defense to the regional final. Moving the ball just as you’d expect from a veteran squad with two seniors and two fourth-year juniors in the starting lineup, the Ramblers kept getting open looks and bolted to a 36-24 lead.
“They jumped out to that big lead and it was tough for us to come back,” said Xavier Sneed, who led Kansas State with 16 points. “They kept their foot on the gas.”
The Ramblers shot 57 percent against a team that is used to shutting opponents down, including 9 of 18 from 3-point range. Kansas State hit just 35 percent from the field – 6 of 26 from beyond the arc.
Early on the second half, Richardson swished a 3-pointer as he was fouled by Kamau Stokes, winding up flat on his back, flashing a huge smile with his arms raised above his head. He knocked down the free throw to complete the four-point play, stretching the lead to 44-29.
Loyola led by as many as 23.
“We’re just a bunch of guys that everybody laughed at … when we thought we were going to play Division I basketball,” Clayton Custer said. “Nobody thought we could do any of this.”
They do now.
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