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Loyola keeps on living a dream that was so close — more than once — to ending

As Loyola's Clayton Custer understands, the difference between tourney glory and crushing defeat is perilously slim. (Ronald Martinez/Getty Images)

It was merely the latest test for Loyola’s Clayton Custer, who had aced them all season as the Missouri Valley Conference player of the year and one of the stars of a dizzying run through the NCAA Tournament. As the team’s point guard, managing strategy is his foremost task.

Only this test came in the classroom, not on the court. It was, in fact, in a business course called Strategic Management, and the Final Four-bound finance major took it — maybe even aced it — on Tuesday.

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“I was ready for it,” he said a couple of hours later before a Ramblers practice in preparation for Saturday’s national-semifinal clash with Michigan in San -Antonio.

Custer was hunkered down in a campus library Monday night, studying in between the kind of well-meaning interruptions that just plain come with the territory for a hero of March. He’ll take another test in a different class while in Texas.

“It’s busy right now,” he said. “It’s kind of stressful, but it’s fun.”

Fun? Goodness, it must be. It makes one think about how fine the line is between joy and heartbreak at this time of year, between the magical and the mundane.

Put another way: How different would life be for the Ramblers if Donte Ingram’s buzzer-beating three-pointer in the opening round against Miami had rimmed out — if a road-paving 64-62 victory had instead been a season-ending 62-61 defeat?

Or if Custer’s game-winner against Tennessee in the Round of 32 had hit the rim, then the backboard and fallen into the hands of a Volunteers player instead of through the hoop?

“Life would be a lot different right now if we wouldn’t have made those shots, that’s for sure,” Custer said. “I’m just thankful that the ball bounced our way on those shots. I guess the ball bounced our way on mine — Donte swished it.”

Custer said he’d be “getting caught up, studying all day” if not for this rip-roaring run, and it’s believable when looking from the outside in at one of the academically best-performing programs in the country. You need another reason to root for the Ramblers? Probably not, but their basketball team’s graduation rate has been Ivy League good.

Seriously, though, what if this wild and wonderful ride had been stopped short as far back as the opening day of the tournament? Miami had to miss the front end of a one-and-one for the Ramblers to win as they did.

“You’ve got to get some breaks at the end of the games to find ways to win close ones,” coach Porter Moser said. “I’m grateful we’re still preparing. There’s only four of us in this tournament that are preparing, getting better and trying to compete. That’s what I love about it.”

Tuesday at Gentile Arena — until recently, a place to which most media in this town would’ve needed directions — a guy couldn’t turn around without bumping into a TV camera or an outstretched reporter’s notebook. It was never-before-seen. It was nuts. It was kind of beautiful.

Freshman big man Cameron Krutwig tried to make the case that the Ramblers had done enough by winning their league that — even if the whole March Madness thing hadn’t taken off — the “respect” for the program throughout the city would’ve been high. It’s a nice thought, but it probably takes a lot more than that to get Pro Sportsville’s attention.

What if those shots hadn’t gone in? Ah, but they did.

“There’s a little gap between winning and losing,” guard Ben Richardson said. “Its about those little plays that are here and there, the way you finish a game. You can be out in the first round. We could’ve been out in the -conference tournament in St. Louis. We wouldn’t even be talking right now.”

Yet we are. And we can’t get enough.