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Commentary: Loyola is Cinderella no more. After a convincing 71-58 upset of No. 1 seed Illinois, the Sweet 16-bound Ramblers are a real threat to win it all.

UPDATED: Mon., March 22, 2021

Loyola Chicago center Cameron Krutwig (25) drives on Illinois guard Jacob Grandison  (Paul Sancya)
Loyola Chicago center Cameron Krutwig (25) drives on Illinois guard Jacob Grandison (Paul Sancya)
By Paul Sullivan Chicago Tribune

INDIANAPOLIS – The cute little story of the Cinderella team and its good-luck charm officially is history.

It was fun while it lasted.

Sure, Loyola Chicago is back in the Sweet 16, Cameron Krutwig and Lucas Williamson have returned to the spotlight and Sister Jean once again is multitasking with prayers and scouting reports for the boys.

But that’s where the similarities end.

After Sunday’s convincing 71-58 win over top-seeded Illinois in a second-round NCAA Tournament game at Bankers Life Fieldhouse, there’s no looking back.

Forget the fairy-tale run of 2018.

This team is the real deal.

As March Madness lives up to its name in the Indiana bubble, where upsets are the norm and the blue bloods are missing in action, no one can seriously doubt Loyola’s chances of doing the unthinkable and winning it all.

The Ramblers won the state championship Sunday, and now they turn to a bigger challenge.

“The guys believed,” coach Porter Moser said. “It’s amazing what happens when you get a group that believes.”

Loyola bounced out to a quick lead in the first three minutes on three inside scores by Krutwig and a 3-pointer by Braden Norris and never looked back. Every time Illinois looked ready to make a run, the Ramblers answered with one of their own.

When Ayo Dosunmu hit a 3-pointer with a little more than 13 minutes left to cut the deficit to 42-36, awakening the Illini fans, Loyola refused to panic. Williamson hit a jumper, Marquise Kennedy drove the lane and scored, and Norris hit a shot that pushed the lead back to 12.

And that was the beginning of the end.

The No. 2 team in the country – the one with two All-Americans in Dosunmu and Kofi Cockburn, the one that was picked to beat Loyola on 92% of fan brackets at ESPN.com – suddenly was down for the count.

“If you want to be the best, you’ve got to beat the best,” Krutwig said. “And they’re a really, really good team. We came out and we just executed and played our game and kind of controlled the game from the start. … No one was doing anything out of their body, out of their mind. We stuck to the game plan Coach drew up in the huddle.

“Just a great sense of relief to be doing it with these guys, especially throughout this whole year with COVID and no fans and everything like that. Just a special moment.”

It’s one thing to get a few breaks, to capitalize on an off night by a more talented team or to have an entire team play the game of its lives, as Villanova did while shooting 78.6% from the field in its stunning upset of Georgetown in the 1985 championship game.

None of that happened Sunday.

Illinois didn’t play poorly. The Ramblers were simply the better team with a superior game plan drawn up by one of the game’s top coaches.

And the best part for Ramblers fans is Loyola has knocked off the ACC and Big Ten tournament champions and still has a higher gear it can reach in Indy.

After the win, Moser brought the team back out to the court to salute its fans, including Sister Jean, and have one more celebration for a job well done on a day that won’t be forgotten for a long time.

“I wanted them to stay out and enjoy it,” Moser said. “That’s just in your memory, that moment right there, and the feeling – all the work you did, all the effort you do to stay together, the sacrifices you make, especially the sacrifices we made this year.

“I just didn’t want to rush in the locker room. ‘Stay out and enjoy it. Stand behind Krutwig.’ Krutwig would be the first one to say it’s a team thing with our program.”

It is a team thing with the Ramblers, as they proved once again. Krutwig led the way with 19 points, 12 rebounds, five assists and three steals, while Williamson and Kennedy had 14 points apiece and Norris ran the offense without blinking against the Illini’s celebrated guards, Dosunmu and Andre Curbelo.

Dosunmu was held to nine points while committing six turnovers in what figures to be his final game before turning pro. Ayo and out.

Krutwig suggested everyone seemed to forget the Ramblers were the nation’s best defensive team. He theorized some might have thought it was a fluke because Loyola plays in the Missouri Valley Conference.

It wasn’t, just as this program is no fluke, not another Cinderella one-and-done like so many other mid-major teams.

“It’s definitely a different story (than 2018),” Krutwig said. “We came into this tournament ranked 17th in the country in the AP poll. We got an eighth seed. That’s just the hand we were dealt, but we feel like we’re one of the best teams in the country.

“And we showed that these last two games, definitely with the contrasting style. Georgia Tech pretty much played all zone, tried to force us to make outside shots, whereas Illinois was physical, making us run our (man-to-man) sets.

“That’s the great thing about us. We can adapt to any style of play really. You can’t not think you’re one of the best teams in the country. You’re going to think that and you’ve got to play like it. We’re excited to get to the next one.”

That adaptability is a tribute to Moser, who will become one of the most coveted coaches in the nation after this is all over. He can probably make a ton of money at a bigger program, so it’s a matter of whether Loyola is big enough for him.

Moser remade the program almost from scratch, and no one would blame him if he reaped the rewards. Jerry Harkness, the star of the 1963 Ramblers team that won the NCAA Tournament, said Moser proved his worth in the opening minutes of the Georgia Tech game, when Loyola looked clueless against a smaller lineup.

“When Georgia Tech played a 1-3-1 (zone) with the emphasis on Krutwig, Coach made the change,” Harkness said. “We’ve got a really good coach. He doesn’t let the team get away from it. He called a timeout and then felt it was almost time for another – boom – to get something across.

“I’m just really impressed with him. I see more talent on other teams. But as a team, these guys are real good, and the defense keeps them close where other teams can’t run away.”

The Ramblers will play Oregon State in their Sweet 16 game Saturday in Indianapolis. Krutwig reminded his teammates the media attention will get more intense, and the pats on the back from family and friends “are going to go up another level.”

“You’ve just got to find that balance between having confidence in yourself, a respectful confidence for your opponent, and just know, ‘Hey, we’re ready, we’re ready to do this,’ he said.

“That’s one thing Coach has really done well with us: given us that confidence to go out and play and beat anybody. It starts with me and Lucas and the seniors, just telling these young guys, ‘Hey, we can do this. You’ve just got to believe.’”

Cinderella has left the building. But the Loyola Ramblers are alive and kicking.

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