ATLANTA — There was a play in Loyola’s Elite Eight victory Saturday when point guard Clayton Custer just plain looked out of options. He was alone on the right side of the basket, one 6-1 guy against two longer Kansas State defenders, and the shot clock was nearing zero.
I said to the writer seated next to me, who had been subjected to my running dialogue all game, ‘‘He’s got to shoot it.’’
But Custer didn’t shoot it. Unruffled by the situation, he probed the baseline and found a sliver of an opening through which he delivered a perfect pass to Lucas Williamson, who was knifing down the lane. Williamson drew a foul as he scored — with one second on the shot clock — and completed a three-point play for a 30-22 lead.
Out of options? I should have known better. There’s always more than meets the eye with these Final Four-bound Ramblers.
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It’s certainly true of Custer, the Missouri Valley Conference player of the year, who isn’t bigger, faster or more athletic than the guards he’s going up against; he’s just better. Maybe that eventually would have been discovered at Iowa State, where he started his college career, but Loyola fans have to be delighted it wasn’t.
‘‘It doesn’t matter the size of the dog in the fight; it’s the size of the fight in the dog,’’ said guard Ben Richardson, who has played with Custer since their elementary school days in Overland Park, Kansas. ‘‘And Clay has proven [that] he doesn’t care. He’s proven that he belongs on this stage. And he’s the best point guard, in my mind, in this tournament — and I’m not just saying that because he’s my best friend. I might be biased, but that’s what I believe. And we all believe that, and our belief in each other is what makes us so special.’’
Boy, did Richardson ever nail it with the last 12 words of that comment. That belief in one another is what allows the Ramblers to flourish in an offense that calls for whoever has the ball to pass, drive or shoot within a half-second of receiving it. It doesn’t always happen — see the Custer play above — but it has to happen more with this team than it does with any other still in the tournament.
America has taken note of how rhythmically and unselfishly the Ramblers play offense. I actually saw a tweet during the game from a middle-aged fellow in Ohio who asked if it was too much to compare the Ramblers to the Golden State Warriors for the way they pass the ball and spread the floor with so many shooters.
The Warriors? Of course, it’s too much. But this is late March — let’s get nuts. Besides, you can see where he was coming from.
Yet it shouldn’t be lost on those watching that Loyola has been as good on defense in this tournament — and all season, really — as it has been on offense. Here, too, the Ramblers operate with rhythm, trust and that aforementioned belief.
‘‘The first focus is defense for us,’’ Custer said. ‘‘Yeah, people talk about our spacing and the way we move the ball and how unselfish we are, which I think [is] expected because we do do a good job of that. But I think our defense is definitely the key to us winning these games.’’
Opposing coaches have been deeply impressed. Kansas State’s Bruce Weber saw clearly in scouting the Ramblers how disciplined and dogged they were at defending ball screens, making switches and being physical.
‘‘I feared it,’’ Weber said. ‘‘Our staff feared it. We talked a lot [Friday] about it. They were better defensively than I even thought, to be honest.’’
All those run-outs and layups we saw in the Sweet 16 against Nevada? The transition three-pointers that helped break the back of Kansas State? They were born at the defensive end of the floor. Great defense might be its own reward, but it’s pretty awesome when you get an easy two or three points out of it, too.
‘‘You achieve what you emphasize,’’ Ramblers coach Porter Moser said. ‘‘We’ve been focusing on it all year. All offseason, they bought in that that’s what wins and they bought in that it creates offense. And they know we’ve got weapons, and they know the way we do things offensively. I always crack up when people say we play slow. We try to grind you out on defense, but we’re trying to push [offensively].’’
As we’re witnessing game in and game out, good offense plus good defense equals more than just a puncher’s chance.
Follow me on Twitter @SLGreenberg.