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It’s official: Loyola is NCAA Tournament-bound after beating ISU for MVC title

ST. LOUIS — Donte Ingram had a message for everyone in Chicago. Not merely those who already support Loyola basketball. Not just his friends in Rogers Park and on the South Side, where the Ramblers senior played his last two years of high school ball at Simeon.

No, Ingram was talking to everybody back home who enjoys a little annual event known across the land as March Madness. In other words, everybody with a pulse.

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“Chicago needs to stand up, man,” he said after scoring 18 points in the Ramblers’ 65-49 victory over Illinois State in the Missouri Valley Conference tournament championship game. “We’ve been putting on for this city. We’ve had pride in our city, and we’ve been taking care of business. So I feel like we’ve done our part.”

Loyola gets the party started after winning the MVC title to clinch a bid in the NCAA Tournament. (AP/Tom Gannam)

Translation: Chicago has an NCAA Tournament team after all. It’s Loyola, for the first time since 1985. No more speculation. No more worries. The Ramblers are in — and the bandwagon has room for many more.

Thirty-three years ago, the city was far more tuned into the college game. DePaul had primed the pump in a big way, and then Loyola surged in with a Sweet 16-bound squad that simply demanded to be watched.

The numbers were out of this world. Alfredrick Hughes averaged 26.3 points and 9.5 rebounds. Andre Battle went for 20.3 and 6.2. Carl “Go-Go” Golston was an assist machine, averaging 9.2 along with 14.8 points. Somehow, there still was room left for hardworking Andre Moore to average a points-rebounds double-double.

These Ramblers aren’t spectacular like that. No one scores more than junior point guard Clayton Custer’s 13.7 per game or snatches more boards than Ingram’s 6.4. But you can’t fake a regular-season title backed up by net-cutting success over three exciting days of Arch Madness, and you sure can’t fake 28-5. These Ramblers are equal parts rip-your-face-off and sweet simplicity. They play hard, they play smart and they fear no one.

“We know we can beat anybody,” said Ingram, the tournament MVP. “We knew that from Day 1.”

Which team was better Sunday was never in doubt. The Ramblers jumped to a 9-2 lead and didn’t trail in beating the Redbirds (18-15) for the third time.

Senior Ben Richardson and junior Marques Townes led a defense that hounded ISU’s three starting guards into combined 6-for-27  shooting. Freshman center Cameron Krutwig more than held his own against terrific big man Phil Fayne. And Ingram sealed things with a three-pointer that put his team ahead by 20 with under five minutes to go, then smiled at the CBS announcers as he ran back down the court.

“Since me and Donte got here,” Richardson said, “we’ve been dreaming of this moment.”

When coach Porter Moser recruited Ingram and Richardson, he assured them, “Hey, we’re not winning right now, but we can.” Moser told his players entering this season, his seventh at the school: “I don’t know where we’re going to finish, but we’re going to be in the conversation.”

So very right on both counts.

On the court after Sunday’s game, Moser, who won an MVC title as a player at Creighton, was asked if it’s more fun to rise to the top as a player or a coach.

“I’m going to be honest,” he said. “Player. That’s why I’m so happy for these guys.”

Soon after, he joined them in gazing up at the Scottrade Arena scoreboard as a video played with the iconic song “One Shining -Moment” playing over highlights from the MVC tourney. Players, coaches, fans — they all stared, smiles as wide as the Mississippi on their faces.

The Ramblers, projected as a possible No. 12 seed in the Big Dance, will learn next Sunday where they’re headed and whom they’re up against. How far will they go from there? How many in Chicago will be standing behind them?

The conversation has already started. And Loyola is right in the thick of it.

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Email: sgreenberg@suntimes.com