Loyola-Chicago looks to build on captivating Final Four run
By Andrew Seligman
AP Sports Writer
CHICAGO — An unforgettable run to the Final Four is over, but the memories won’t be fading anytime soon.
Loyola-Chicago captured the imagination of a nation and even turned a lovable 98-year-old nun named Sister Jean Dolores Schmidt into a celebrity, with shirts and bobbleheads flying off the racks and memes filling social media feeds.
It was fun while it lasted. And while the run ended with a loss to Michigan in the semifinals on Saturday, the Ramblers insist this is just the beginning.
“This is something that’s been developing over the past couple of years, developing the culture of things. It’s the little things that separate us,” coach Porter Moser said. “We don’t have to be the most talented team, but I think we’re together.”
Loyola (32-6) set a program record for victories and won the Missouri Valley Conference tournament to reach the NCAAs for the first time since a Sweet 16 run in 1985. It was a huge step for a school that had struggled in the decades that followed.
Loyola loses three key seniors in Donte Ingram, Ben Richardson and Aundre Jackson. But Missouri Valley Conference Player of the Year Clayton Custer leads a solid core of returning players. Recruiting should also get a boost after a run like this.
The biggest question for the Ramblers is whether Moser will return or move on to greener — and bigger — pastures. His stock might never be as high as it is now.
Then again, Moser is from the Chicago area and figures to get an extension that comes with a lucrative raise. He just might embrace the challenge of running a consistent winner at Loyola after turning around a struggling program.
“There’s a lot of things that I learned, life lessons from this guy,” Richardson said. “And I couldn’t be happier to have chosen Loyola and came to Chicago and played for him.”
The Ramblers endured 14 seasons without a winning record at one point. They have slowly turned it around under Moser, a protege of the late Rick Majerus who is 121-111 in seven seasons.
Loyola stayed with him through a difficult start, with a 32-61 mark and a switch from the Horizon League to the MVC in his first three years. Loyola is 89-50 since then.
“Just the way that we’ve continuously been prepped for every team we face this year and whether it’s film, walk-throughs, you know, practices and then extra walk-throughs just in ballrooms, we’ll set it up wherever we can just to get a competitive advantage,” Richardson said. “And that’s something that (Moser’s) always been really passionate about, giving us that confidence, because by the time the game comes, we have prepped so much that we have a real confidence we’ll win the game because we know what they’re going to throw at us. And I think the way that he’s done that has really propelled us and helped us in this tournament.”
Whether it was Sister Jean charming the nation or an unselfish team pulling out one nerve-racking win over another, the Ramblers gave college basketball a feel-good story at a time when the sport needed it.
They won their first three tournament games by a combined four points, starting with Ingram’s buzzer-beating 3 from the March Madness logo against Miami. Custer got a sweet bounce on a last-second jumper to beat Tennessee, and Marques Townes nailed a decisive 3 in the closing seconds against Nevada in the Sweet 16 — two more prayers answered.
A dominant victory over Kansas State behind Richardson’s career-high 23 points sent Loyola to the Final Four for the first time since the 1963 championship team helped knock down racial barriers. The Ramblers became the fourth No. 11 seed to get that far, but just like the other three, they lost in the semifinals.
“Obviously this is something that will keep us connected for the rest of our lives,” Ingram said. “I love all these guys like brothers. We’re all family, the players, the coaching staff. And I won’t forget this.”