ATLANTA — It was a layup line. It was a fierce declaration. It was an explosion of maroon and gold. It was everything good and amazing and unforgettable about Loyola in its 100th season of basketball.
It was the mother of all runs, from down 20-8 to ahead 40-28. That’s 32-8 where we come from. Without the greatest 16:53 stretch of the Ramblers’ season — of any of their seasons, probably — you’re reading their obituary.
Drink it in, swish it around in your mouth and savor it: The Ramblers (31-5) are going to the Elite Eight. They’ll play No. 9 Kansas State at 5:09 p.m. Saturday with a trip to the Final Four in San Antonio on the line.
They beat Nevada 69-68 here Thursday, an 11 seed over a 7 seed in a South Region gone haywire. And they did it by going peak Loyola when they needed to most, outscoring the Wolf Pack 20-4 to end the first half and then — incredibly — making their first 13 shots of the second half in building a double-digit lead.
“They don’t quit,” coach Porter Moser said. “They’re resilient. It’s different guys, different nights.”
It was junior guard Marques Townes this time with a team-high 18 points, most coming on relentless drives to the basket — but the final three on a mammoth shot from the right corner for a four-point lead with under seven seconds to play.
It was junior guard Clayton Custer with steals and layups at the other end, senior guard Ben Richardson with his usual attack-dog defense, senior forward Aundre Jackson with 13 of his 15 points in the second half.
And it was assistant coach Bryan Mullins, too. Moser made sure to make it known that the best coaching of this game wasn’t done by him or by his Nevada counterpart, Eric Musselman. It was Mullins who suggested the Ramblers start the second half with burly center Cameron Krutwig on the bench and the smaller, more athletic Jackson in the lineup instead. The resulting havoc created by the Ramblers’ defense, and the wide-open driving lanes exploited by their offense, were things of rare and exquisite beauty.
The conventional wisdom entering this game was that Loyola wanted to play slow and Nevada wanted to go fast. Yet the Jackson five sped things up so severely it was the Wolf Pack (29-8) who careened off the winning path. Now that’s coaching.
But the Ramblers eventually went cold for a brief spell and the Pack roared back, tying the game 59-59 on a Cody Martin laying with 4:06 to go. That’s what good teams do in March. That’s what Sweet 16 classics look like.
It was time for the “sleeping giant,” as Richardson calls his team, to rise once more. Each of the Ramblers put four fingers up, a gesture that’s all about digging deep in the final four minutes.
“We practice situationals all the time,” Jackson said. “We practice being up late. We practice being down, tied scores — just the four-minute games that we work on. So we knew how to work it out, and that’s what we did.”
A Jackson three with 2:57 left gave the Ramblers a 62-59 lead, and they stayed ahead from there. Townes’ shot at the end was the dagger.
“I’ll probably remember it for the rest of my life,” he said. “I mean, it probably doesn’t get any better than that.”
Everyone with a maroon-and-gold scarf — even an imaginary one — will play that shot on a loop for a long time. But understand this: It might get better than that moment. Every time we think we’ve seen peak Loyola, there’s another level of can’t-believe-it to which the Ramblers ascend.
“We’ve got people watching us all over the world,” said Sister Jean Dolores Schmidt, the 98-year-old nun who serves as team chaplain.
As if you didn’t know all about Sister Jean already. She was asked by a breathless reporter if Loyola being in the Elite Eight was “bigger than life.” It seemed to me a silly question until Sister Jean affirmed: “It does.”
Always one step ahead of everybody else, these Ramblers.
They’ve won three straight heart-stoppers — by a combined four points — in this tournament. They’ve won 13 in a row overall, their longest streak in 33 years.
They’re still alive. They’re one win from the Final Four. Imagine it.
Follow me on Twitter @slgreenberg.