DALLAS — Whether Loyola originally intended to or not, the Ramblers hope their berth in the Sweet 16 is making a statement for mid-major programs.
It’s no secret that non-Power Five conference teams are less likely to get an at-large bid to the NCAA Tournament. Just look at the breakdown of this year’s bracket.
The Atlantic Coast Conference sent nine teams, matching the same amount it sent in 2017. The SEC sent eight teams. The Big 12 had seven. And the Big Ten and the Pac-12 sent four and three teams, respectively.
Even the Big East had six teams.
Despite Loyola’s 25-5 regular-season record and quality victory over then-No. 5 Florida in December, the Ramblers likely would’ve been left out of the tournament had they not won the Missouri Valley tournament.
Don’t believe it? Look at what happened with Illinois State in 2017.
After sharing the Missouri Valley regular-season title with Wichita State and finishing the regular season at 25-5, the Redbirds lost to the Shockers in the MVC tournament title game, which left their NCAA Tournament hopes in the hands of the selection committee.
Illinois State was passed over and received a bid to the NIT, and coach Dan Muller was not happy. The committee’s reasoning was because the Redbirds didn’t have enough “quality wins.”
Clayton Custer said he hopes that Loyola’s success in the NCAA Tournament opens the committee’s eyes and shows that mid-major programs shouldn’t be overlooked.
“It goes to show the difference between high-majors and mid-majors in today’s game,” Custer said. “Players are all getting so good, so the difference isn’t that big anymore. . . . Mid-major teams can compete with high-major teams on any given night.”
Aundre Jackson agreed with Custer and had two words for people watching: “Respect us.”
Coach Porter Moser said his team didn’t focus on making a deep postseason run to “make a statement” so to speak. But now, he has changed his mind.
“I hope that conversation moves into that,” Moser said. “Because this group might not have gotten in if something would’ve stumbled in the conference tournament. And that would’ve been a shame. That would’ve been a real shame watching a group like this not get a chance because of that.”
Jackson’s big-time homecoming
Before Loyola’s first game in the NCAA Tournament in Dallas, Jackson said he wanted to get out of his scoring slump and play well. And that’s exactly what he has done.
For the first time in two seasons, Jackson was going to play in his home state of Texas, which means he finally could play in front of his friends and family.
In Loyola’s three MVC tournament games, Jackson only managed to score 22 total points.
But with his family and friends watching at American Airlines Center, Jackson scored 28 points in the two games.
“I knew I wanted to come back and impress my family and friends,” Jackson said. “I knew that I couldn’t play badly in front of them, so just coming back here and playing good in front of them is a great feeling.”
Moser said he was proud of Jackson, a senior who transferred from McLennan Community College in Waco, Texas, in 2016.
“How cool is it to do this in his hometown?” Moser asked. “He’s the most selfless kid.”
Ramblers stun third-seeded Tennessee 63-62 to advance to Sweet 16
DALLAS — Loyola did it again.
The Ramblers, a scrappy, undersized Missouri Valley Conference team, stunned third-seeded Tennessee, 63-62, Saturday, which means Loyola is on its way to its first Sweet Sixteen since 1985.
Coming out of a timeout, Clayton Custer hit a jumper, which bounced straight up off the rim before falling through and gave Loyola a one-point lead.
But unlike Donte Ingram’s last-second shot, Custer’s basket left 3.6 seconds on the clock, giving Tennessee plenty of time to respond.
But Tennessee’s Hail Mary of a shot rimmed out.
The entire bench swarmed the court in near disbelief. Loyola somehow managed to pull off their second-straight upset against ranked opponents.
The Ramblers, which led by as many as 10 points in the second half, fell apart in the last two minutes of the game.
Tennessee went on a 14-2 run, which was capped off by Grant Williams sinking a jumper and drawing a foul. He made the free throw and with 10.5 seconds on the clock, Tennessee led 62-61.
“You can’t lose hope until the last buzzer rings,” Sister Jean Dolores-Schmidt said.
And Loyola didn’t. Coach Porter Moser called a timeout to reconfigure his team and draw out a plan. Custer’s clutch shot saved the day for the Ramblers and wrote another happy ending in the Loyola Cinderella story.
“We’ve come back from deficits,” Moser said. “We’ve lost leads and found ways to win games. You know, [this team] just kept believing, and then — this group has been ultra resilient.”
After the game, freshman Cameron Krutwig had only one explanation for Loyola’s back-to-back thrilling wins.
“Sister Jean has that special connection up there for us,” Krutwig said.
The Ramblers knew their game against a talented and physical Southeastern Conference team was going to be a “dogfight” especially since size was not in their favor heading into the game.
But Loyola definitely caught a break. Volunteers center Kyle Alexander was sidelined with a bruised hip and big-man Admiral Schofield, who singlehandedly dominated Loyola in the first four minutes scoring 11 points, ran into foul trouble early.
Loyola proved once again that its ability to play as a unit makes them a deadly team to defend. The Ramblers did a good job spreading the floor, which made Tennessee struggle to key on Aundre Jackson, who led the team with a game-high 16 points, and Custer, who scored 10 points. As a team, Loyola shot 50 percent from the field and 40 percent beyond the arc as compared to Tennessee, who 45.5 percent from the field and 36 percent from the three.
“Some nights people get more shots than other nights,” Custer said. “We don’t care how many shots we are going to get on any given night. The ball is going to find you if you’re open, and we trust — we have so many weapons that we trust that people are going to make plays.”
Tennessee ran the tempo out of the gates at the beginning of the game leading 15-6 at one point. But Loyola dominated the last 15:37 of the first half, outscoring the Volunteers 23-10.
Loyola, who was 20-0 when leading at the half this season heading into Saturday’s game, led 29-25 heading into the locker room after the first 20 minutes — a deadly position for the Volunteers, who were 3-4 this season when trailing at the half.
Loyola has now won four of its last five games against Southeastern Conference opponents with the most recent one. And the Ramblers have won back-to-back games against ranked opponents for the first time since Sept. 1984.
With the loss to Loyola, Tennessee dropped to 0-4 against Missouri Valley Conference opponents in the NCAA Tournament.
With another win in the bank, Moser and his crew look forward to their next game in Atlanta.
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