Go ahead. Tell Loyola it doesn’t belong. Tell the Ramblers that the Sweet 16 is meant for more prominent schools or better Cinderella stories. That it’s meant for anybody else but them. They like that.
They’ve lived on a steady diet of you-can’t-do-that, so, please, they say, keep whispering sweet you’re-nothings in our ears.
Eleventh-seeded Loyola did it again Saturday in Dallas, beating third-seeded Tennessee 63-62 to advance to the Sweet 16 of the NCAA Tournament for the first time since 1985.
This time the heroics were courtesy of point guard Clayton Custer, whose game-winning shot hit the rim, bounced off the backboard and then rattled in with 3.6 seconds left.
Of course it did. What, you expected this heart attack would be easier?
“I can’t believe that just happened,’’ Custer said afterward.
What we have here is a team that has been given the opportunity to prove that the planet holds players who escaped the attention of bigger programs or bloomed late or possessed something that was difficult to measure.
These aren’t players who are thinking about the NBA or any next level other than the next line in the bracket. They are thinking about each other. That’s clear from the unselfishness with which the Ramblers moved the ball Saturday.
These guys like each other.
Feel free to like them, too.
They have won 30 games this season and 19 of their last 20, including 12 in a row. Sustained winning means something, even if their strength of schedule might have been lacking. It means that the Ramblers are used to winning, that they expect to win.
They expected that in a first-round game Thursday, when they beat sixth-seeded Miami on Donte Ingram’s game-winning three-pointer with 0.3 seconds left.
They expected it Saturday. They got off to a poor start, and another team, a team that was unsure of itself or didn’t think it belonged in the tournament, might have folded. This one got to work and cut into the Volunteers’ lead.
The Ramblers took advantage of Admiral Schofield’s first-half foul trouble, and the Vols helped out by settling for three-point attempts.
Tennessee learned two things about Loyola that it wished it hadn’t. First, that good shots are hard to come by against the Ramblers, who are constantly moving and helping on defense.
Second, that the Ramblers move the ball so quickly in their halfcourt offense that it’s hell to keep up. They’re big on ball fakes, passes and waiting on the perfect shot. It’s how they built a 10-point lead in the second half.
“I don’t think these teams know how hard we’re going to play when we show up,’’ Custer said.
When Tennessee cut the lead to 61-59 with 1:44 left, it looked grim. The Ramblers look rattled, throwing the ball away once. When Grant Williams converted a three-point play to give the Volunteers a 62-61 lead with 20.1 seconds left, it looked even worse.
But then came Custer’s shot, which seemed to want to touch every part of the basket before going in. Crazy. And, yet, not so surprising.
Now the Ramblers head to Atlanta for the next round. They’re loaded with confidence, but they were loaded with confidence before the tournament even started. Also, lest we all get caught up in the Cinderella plot, they’re good.
Freshman center Cameron Krutwig might not be a great jumper, but it looks as if he has spent every waking moment of his young life working on footwork. And at 6-9, 260 pounds, he’s about as easy to move as a basement water heater.
Custer is the perfect March Madness point guard. He can hit three-pointers, he doesn’t turn the ball over and he finds open teammates. That was on a full display Saturday. Wherever Custer went, Loyola wisely followed.
If you’re looking for local angles, Ingram went to Simeon, freshman Lucas Williamson went to Young and Krutwig played at Jacobs.
If you’re not looking for local angles, senior Aundre Jackson is from Dallas, and he’s a tough kid.
They’re all tough kids and, beyond that, they seem absolutely unfazed by what they’re doing. They don’t have to say they belong in the Sweet 16. The way they play says it.
Now they get a chance to go farther than the 1985 team did. Amazing.
One more thing. An NCAA Tournament game on St. Patrick’s Day featuring a Catholic school that once employed a coach named George Ireland? And you don’t think Loyola, 925 miles from campus, had the home-sod advantage Saturday?
You’re full of blarney.
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