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It’s a gift: Loyola knows what to do with the opportunity it has been given

Loyola's Clayton Custer hits the game-winning shot against Tennessee on Saturday, sending the Ramblers to the Sweet Sixteen. (AP Photo/Tony Gutierrez)

Sometimes life hands you a gift. The Loyola Ramblers are lovingly holding one in their hands.

Yes, they have accomplished much on their own, and if you had asked the players before the NCAA Tournament began if they could see events transpiring the way they have, most, if not all, would have said yes. They knew what they had before they won the Missouri Valley Conference tournament. What has happened since has only reinforced their feelings. They’re on their way to Atlanta for a Sweet 16 game against Nevada.

But lots of college basketball players loved their teams before the tournament began, and some of those teams might have been better than coach Porter Moser’s team. And they’re gone. That’s why the Ramblers have the look of people who appreciate the opportunity in front of them, the gift they have been given. And they’ve used every bit of it well.

You wish they might have used it to build bigger leads in the tournament, but it wouldn’t be March Madness without game-winning shots in the final seconds. The 11th-seeded Ramblers have done that twice in two games, and although it has been tough on the nerves (and, for some of you, the liver), it’s how this was meant to be. Now comes seventh-seeded Nevada, which upset second-seeded Cincinnati thanks to a massive comeback.

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So, yes, a gift. The gift of life for Loyola.

The gift that keeps giving?

“Coach has been [saying], ‘Look around. You think this is good? Well, it’s going to get even better,’ ” senior Ben Richardson said.

They’re the Cinderella team in what has become a Cinderella convention, and that’s OK with them.

“We’ve got our foot on the pedal,” Moser said. “We feel like we’re chasing. We’re going to chase some more. We’ve got to chase Nevada. We’re going to be the underdog in this game, and we’re going to chase ’em.’’

What must it be like to be 19 or 20 and part of something so big and joyous and ridiculous? To succeed wildly with people you spilled sweat and blood with? What must it be like to be relatively unknown one moment and the talk of college basketball the next?

Answer: Awesome and possibly a tad overwhelming, which is why the Ramblers are dropping the same anchors they’ve dropped all season.

“We haven’t been here,” Richardson said. “We haven’t had all this media attention. We haven’t been playing this deep into March. It’s uncharted territory for us, but we’ve kind of stuck with what we’ve done all year, and that’s just trying to get better.”

It’s great fun to see a Chicago team work so hard and fit so well together. College basketball has been down for so long in the city that, when a story like this comes around, you forget how thirsty you were for it. That the team is unselfish on offense and tenacious on defense only adds to the allure.

I asked Moser what would have happened if a big-ego player had joined this team. He said he wouldn’t recruit that type of player but did understand that a late-onset head ballooning was hypothetically a possibility. Woe to that player.

“If something happened where a kid came in and his ego got bigger, I guarantee the culture of the guys would put that in check quick,” he said.

There’s no hint of me-first on this team, at least from the outside. The way the players give up open shots for better open shots doesn’t happen on every team.

“We believe in each other,” Richardson said. “We believe in this team. I think that’s going to carry us.”

They can do this. You get the feeling the Ramblers wouldn’t care if they were playing a No. 1 seed Thursday. That’s how confident they are, and that’s how well they play together. But there’s no denying that the path in front of them is a lot flatter than it was when the tournament started. The South Region, which includes Loyola, is now devoid of the No.  1, 2, 3 and 4 seeds. If this year’s Dance has established anything, it’s that seeds are meaningless.

“In our region, a ton of upsets have happened, and people say, ‘Oh, things look easier for you,’ ” Richardson said. “I’m like, ‘Are you kidding? Have you seen what happened? You think it’s going to be easier after seeing all that?’ It’s anything goes.”

The Ramblers are still alive in the NCAA Tournament, and they feel more alive than any group of teenagers and 20-somethings have a right to feel. That’s a gift given and a gift graciously received.

Just because you deserve something doesn’t mean you’ll get it. Loyola did and did.

Follow me on Twitter @MorrisseyCST.

Email: rmorrissey@suntimes.com