Ohio State 54, Loyola 41: Ice-cold Ramblers bounced from Big Dance in first round

The Ramblers came to Pittsburgh and found a rugged Big Ten defense and manhole covers atop the baskets.

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Loyola’s Keith Clemons pulls a towel over his head in the final moments of the Ramblers’ NCAA Tournament loss to Ohio State.

Loyola’s Keith Clemons pulls a towel over his head in the final moments of the Ramblers’ NCAA Tournament loss to Ohio State.

Keith Srakocic/AP

PITTSBURGH — For Loyola, it was the kind of day when a guy realizes just as everybody’s running to the other end of the court that his right shoe has come off. So what does he do? He scoops a finger through the laces and runs after them.

Somehow, after scrambling to get into defensive position in time, he manages to get the shoe back on. Crisis averted! But then he immediately commits a foul. Son of a gun.

This actually happened to Ramblers guard Marquise Kennedy, for the record, though it could have been anybody. Again, it was that kind of day for the 10th-seeded team in the South Region. The Ramblers traveled here hoping to find more of the March magic that defined them in 2018 and 2021. Instead, in a 54-41 loss to seventh-seeded Ohio State in the first round of the NCAA Tournament, they found a rugged Big Ten defense waiting for them and manhole covers atop the baskets.

There was no one ruinous moment that ended the Ramblers’ season at 25-8, no single mistake they’ll have to regret. It was a pile of small failures — nearly all of them at the offensive end — that grew into a mountain.

All who had a hand in their quick exit will close their eyes at night and see a ball rimming out. The Ramblers’ 26.8% shooting from the field was a season low. They also made just three of 10 free throws.

“I don’t want this game to define our season,” coach Drew Valentine said. “I don’t want this game to define a lot of these guys’ careers.”

Determined to “set the rules early,” in the words of OSU star E.J. Liddell — a former two-time Class 4A state title winner from Belleville who was named to the Sun-Times’ 2010s All-Decade Team — the Buckeyes (20-12) dug in on the way to what coach Chris Holtmann called their “best defensive performance in a couple years.”

As good as they were, they had help from the Ramblers, who couldn’t finish inside even when the resistance wasn’t extreme. No one had a tougher day at the office than super-senior guard Lucas Williamson, who was 1-for-10 from the field and 1-for-6 from the foul line in the final game of a wonderful career.

“I’m disappointed,” Williams said. “I’m disappointed in myself.”

Determined to make his mark after a brutal first half, Williamson instead kicked his struggles up a few notches. He turned the ball over on the Ramblers’ first possession of the second half, then, after stealing the ball back, drew a foul at the other but missed two free throws. Next time down, he stepped out of bounds. After stealing the ball back again, he rushed to the rim and missed a layup.

What an unfortunate way to go out for a player who has been at the heart of a Loyola heyday that began with a stirring Final Four season, reactivated a fan base and brought big-time respect to Rogers Park.

Loyola has won 124 games — losing only 44 — since both Valentine and Williamson walked in the door for a magical 2017-18 season. Valentine was an assistant to Moser with a knack for drawing up defense. Williamson was a freshman reserve from Whitney Young who could come to embody Valentine’s defensive principles and whose overall role would grow and grow.

They made quite a pair even as they sat together for a sad press conference. One of them, at 30, the youngest coach in the tournament. The other, a 22-year-old who has played in more Loyola wins than any player ever.

“It’s tough,” said Valentine, fighting back emotion. “I feel so bad for him because for that to be your last game, that should not define Lucas Williamson and who he is as a player, who he is as a person and what he means to this program. Like I told him after the game, I’ll ride with [him] until the end.”

While Ohio State prepares for No. 2 seed Villanova on Sunday, the Ramblers will lick their wounds and continue with long, slow goodbyes. Valentine and his staff will look to the transfer portal to beef up the next Ramblers team, which will debut in the Atlantic-10 conference. The days of having to win a league title to have any chance to hear their name called on Selection Sunday are over.

Loyola was 6-2 in the tournament under Porter Moser and now is 0-1 under Valentine, who has a bright present and an enviable future. Back-to-back Ramblers teams reached the tournament for the first time since 1963 — when Loyola won it all — and 1964.

To the A-10, then. Onward from here. Upward, too? Even after a dud of a trip to Pittsburgh, that’s the plan.

GAME CHANGERS

Nearly four minutes into the game, Ryan Schwieger hit a three to put Loyola up 5-2. Seconds later, Schwieger dove for a loose ball like it was an overtime fumble in the Super Bowl. Teammate Aher Uguak went hard to the floor with him. Coach Drew Valentine went bonkers — good bonkers — over the display of hustle as the Ramblers fan section chanted, “L!U!C!” For both teams, the defensive intensity exploded from there.

Six straight points by freshman guard Malaki Branham sparked a 14-3 first-half run after which the Buckeyes weren’t seriously threatened. Branham scored 10 in all during the run, with two baskets coming on breakaway dunks after steals. In case anyone was wondering who will eventually grab the baton from E.J. Liddell as Ohio State’s next all-Big Ten star, we’ve found our man. It’s Branham.

• The difference in the teams’ production from inside the three-point line was absurd. Loyola made seven two-point baskets and shot a hard-to-believe-bad 25% on twos. Ohio State made 17 two-point shots on 28 attempts (60.7%) — the same number Loyola tried — for a 20-point edge. Add to that the Buckeyes’ plus-14 from the free throw line and one begins to wonder if this was an even bigger smack-around than it seemed.

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