With 20 seconds remaining in Loyola’s regular-season finale against Bradley, coach Porter Moser signaled for seniors Marques Townes and Clayton Custer to get out of the game. Before they substituted out for the final time at Gentile Arena, the two hugged at center court. They smiled as they walked out, looking around and taking in the scene of nearly 5,000 fans giving them a standing ovation.
Two years ago, the Loyola men’s basketball team was handing out flyers trying to encourage fans to show up. They offered free food and T-Shirts at times as incentives. But Saturday showed just how far the Ramblers have come.
In front of its sixth sellout crowd this season, Loyola beat Bradley 81-68. The win gave the Ramblers their second consecutive regular-season Missouri Valley Conference title, which they’ll share with Drake, who beat Missouri State earlier in the day. It’s the first time Loyola has won back-to-back regular-season conference titles.
Custer was almost at a loss for words after the game.
“It feels really good,” he said. “This one feels almost better in a way. … It’s been a rollercoaster ride and I really mean that. We’ve gone through some ups and some downs just with the added pressure this year and stuff but it feels really good to come out on top and win a second one.”
Townes and Custer have been key for Loyola’s success this season. And on senior night, it was no different.
Though Loyola’s two seniors were teary-eyed when they were honored during a pre-game ceremony, they channeled their emotions into the game. On several occasions, Townes pumped his arms in the air as he skipped down the court and flexed his biceps at the fans. Fans loved it and chanted “MVP” several times when Townes had the ball.
Loyola held control the entire game, though it did get shaky midway through the second half due to poor defense.
Townes opened up scoring for Loyola, sinking a three-point shot on the team’s first possession. He totaled a game-high 26 points, shooting 8-of-14 from the field.
It was one of Townes’ best performances this season. And Moser pointed to it as one of the examples of why he could see Townes, who has been one of the top scorers in the MVC this season, being named conference player of the year.
“Now that the conference race is over, heck yeah,” Moser said. “[Townes has] had a great year. He’s had a great year. He’s been every game, he’s stepped up his mentality, he practices so hard. One-hundred percent, I think he should be MVP of the league.”
Though Custer struggled in the first half, he came up big in the second, scoring 15 points, going 2-for-4 from the perimeter.
“He was like, ‘Give me the ball,'” Moser said of Custer “He missed a three before that which was a pretty good look and it didn’t affect him. He came back and hit another one. If he gets hot, woah.”
Before Loyola cut down the nets, Moser, Townes and Custer promised fans “we’re not done yet.” And it makes one wonder: Could Loyola actually pull off another Cinderella story?
It’s too early to tell. The Ramblers haven’t played well enough this season to earn an at-large bid to the Big Dance, so winning Arch Madness is their only shot at a NCAA Tournament berth. But Loyola — who will be the No. 1 seed for Arch Madness which starts Thursday in St. Louis — does seem to be peaking at the right time.
“This game was a good sign,” Custer said. “Offensively, we were clicking. We were playing with pace. It was probably more fun to watch us tonight than it had been for some games. So I think that’s a really good sign heading into the tournament.”