For the longest time—until Moe Wagner tied the game 47-47 on a big-tie three-pointer with about seven minutes—the dream lived.
Loyola wasn’t just proving it belonged in the Final Four. It was tracking for the championship game. But then, Michigan did what teams with pedigrees do. It flexed its muscle and skill, in the form of Wagner’s 24 points and 15 rebounds, to end the Ramblers’ ride 69-57.
What a ride it was.
Showing the resiliency of its team chaplain, 98-year-old Sister Jean, Loyola became the fourth 11-seed in NCAA tournament history to reach the Final Four.
Of course, it hurt a lot to come up short—especially because the Ramblers had a chance to become the first 11-seed to win a game in the Final Four.
But it was a great run—a ton of fun for Loyola and the basketball-starved city of Chicago, which embraced the Ramblers with every available camera, microphone and writing device.
Hats off to Porter Moser and his staff, who once again put the Ramblers in positions that left a skilled, savvy opponent looking around, wondering exactly how many guys in maroon-and-gold were on the floor.
I don’t know whether I am more impressed with the Loyola players or the Loyola coaches.
Clayton Custer and Ben Richardson, the two Rambler buddies from Overland Park, Kan., were so clutch, so smart. Marques Townes, Donte Ingram and Aundre Jackson made so many shots, so many plays.
From the moment I saw him in November, I resolved to keep an eye on Cameron Krutwig, the 6-9 freshman big man from Jacobs High School in Algonquin, a far northwest Chicago suburb. . . The same high school as my brother-in-law, who proudly embraced his fellow alum.
Krutwig, the Missouri Valley freshman of the year, once again was a bundle of gawky energy in the paint, with 17 points and six rebounds. But he also had six turnovers, especially down the stretch, when Michigan was stifling Loyola.
When my wife asked me if he’ll play in the NBA someday, my first reaction was, “Nah.’’ On second thought, why not? He’ll need to smooth out some things, and continue to develop. But what heart, what determination.
Another question is, where do Moser and his assistants go from here? There has been talk that Loyola wants to increase his estimated $420,000 salary. But if a bigger school decides it wants Moser, good luck with that.
UConn, for example, reportedly just gave Dan Hurley an $18 million deal ($3 million a year for six years).
I’m not saying Moser is at that level. But I am saying that the attendance was 68,257 at the Alamodome on Saturday. And that Loyola’s home attendance for this season was barely half that (36,073), an average of 2,405 for 15 games.
Throw in the fact that Loyola isn’t reeling in the TV dollars, and it only makes sense that Moser and the Ramblers will be parting ways soon.
That’s just the way it is in the world of amateur sports.
Maybe I’m wrong. Honestly, I don’t have a dog in that hunt. If he wants to stay in the Chicago area, which is home, fine. But my experience is that coaches like to move up in the world, not only for the money, but for the opportunity to enjoy continued success.
It will be interesting to see how Loyola fares moving forward. I suspect the Ramblers will be good, but that this will be a watershed season for a long time. I don’t even expect that meager home attendance of of 2,405 to increase radically.
Loyola is not Gonzaga or Wichita State. It is not a “small’’ program that’s likely to remain competitive at the highest levels. It doesn’t have the foundation those programs have.
But that’s OK. What a great season the Ramblers had. What a nice story they were.
We can’t say enough about the joy Loyola provided, not only in Chicago, but around the country. They put the magic in this year’s March Madness.