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More than 400 Loyola fans welcome dancing Ramblers home before Sweet 16 trip

Sister Jean Dolores Schmidt, left, greets Loyola-Chicago coach Porter Moser after the team's 63-62 win over Tennessee in a second-round game at the NCAA men's college basketball tournament in Dallas, Saturday, March 17, 2018. | Tony Gutierrez/Associated Press

Loyola coach Porter Moser used to stand in the Damen Student Center and hand out fliers, T-shirts and sometimes even hot dogs to try to encourage students to come to the men’s basketball games.

Despite his best efforts, the student turnout never had been impressive. Now, though, that seems to be a problem of the past.

More than 400 passionate fans wearing maroon and gold waited in the breezy weather Sunday to welcome home the Ramblers from Dallas and congratulate them on their Sweet 16 berth.

When a police escort led three charter buses carrying the players, coaches, pep band and spirit teams down Sheridan Road near Loyola’s campus, fans lined the streets and cars stopped to honk at the team. It was something most of the team, including athletic director Steve Watson, didn’t expect.

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As the players got off their bus, they were met by cheering fans of all ages. The DJ Khaled song ‘‘All I Do Is Win’’ blared from the speakers at Mertz Field, which is located just north of the Norville Center for Intercollegiate Athletics.

‘‘I didn’t expect that at all,’’ junior Marques Townes said. ‘‘When I saw the people, I thought: ‘Oh, my God. They’re waiting out there for us?’ It was just an amazing feeling. It was so exciting to see that many people out there to show love and support for us.’’

The team filed through a tunnel of fans and high-fived many of them along the way. When Moser finally took the stage and grabbed the microphone, all he could say was, ‘‘Wow.’’

It was a long time coming. Moser had tried so hard in his seven years at the school to connect with the students.

During Loyola’s annual ‘‘Rambler Madness,’’ which kicks off the men’s and women’s basketball seasons, Moser would tell students, ‘‘You make the difference.’’ He taught cheers to them and showed them how they could be distractions while the opposing team shot free throws.

‘‘I told them: ‘This could be a good experience for you and part of your college experience,’ ’’ Moser said.

Loyola has struggled to draw fans consistently for its games. Rewind to the 2014-15 season, when seniors Ben Richardson and Donte Ingram were freshmen. The average attendance for the Ramblers’ home games at Gentile Arena was 1,928 in a building than can hold just less than 5,000 spectators.

‘‘Me and Ben talk about that a lot,’’ Ingram said. ‘‘We say that we started from the bottom. We came in where, on a lucky day, there’d be 50 students at games. So to fast-forward to three years later and to have all the support with all the fans behind us and having this great vibe around campus, it’s been a crazy feeling.’’

Loyola averaged 2,405 fans this season, the fewest in the Missouri Valley Conference. But the turnout Sunday showed just how far the Ramblers have come.

Watson said he is proud of Moser’s dedication to the students and said Loyola will continue to work to improve its game-day experience. Moser, meanwhile, said he hopes fans will continue to turn out and support the Ramblers.

‘‘It means a lot [to have fans’ support],’’ Moser said. ‘‘The student body — all this pride — this is what a college basketball program should be about. All of this excitement going on, and I’m hoping this is just the beginning for Loyola.’’

Moser encouraged students and fans to make the trip to Atlanta, where Loyola will play Nevada on Thursday in its first Sweet 16 appearance since 1985.

Follow me on Twitter @madkenney.

Email: mkenney@suntimes.com