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  • Loyola-Chicago won its first three NCAA tournament games by a total of four points. It wasn't close in the Elite Eight as the Ramblers whipped Kansas State 78-62.
By Andy Staples
March 24, 2018

ATLANTA — The look on Nick Dinardi’s face as he ran to the scorer’s table Saturday night said only one word.

“Me?”

Dinardi is a 6-7 senior forward at Loyola-Chicago. He entered college with no intention of playing Division I basketball. He played on the school’s club team until one day two years ago when he was approached by a Ramblers assistant and asked if he wanted to work out with the team, which needed more big bodies at practice. Until Saturday night, Dinardi had played in 11 games for a total of 21 minutes in his college career. He has now played in 12 games for a total of 22 minutes.

That last minute is a doozy, though. It meant Loyola-Chicago, a No. 11 seed that emerged from the Missouri Valley Conference, had emptied its bench in an Elite Eight game because it was whipping ninth-seeded Kansas State so badly. Slap the Cinderella tag on the Ramblers if you wish, but Cinderellas rarely play walk-ons at the end of Elite Eight wins. “If you’d have told me two years ago that I’d be playing in an Elite Eight game,” Dinardi said, “I’d have said you were crazy.”

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But had someone told him during Saturday’s first half, the idea would have seemed entirely reasonable. Loyola-Chicago buried Kansas State early thanks to a three-point barrage from guard Ben Richardson and rolled to a 78-62 win to claim the South Region title. The Ramblers joined fellow No. 11 seeds 1986 LSU, 2006 George Mason and 2011 VCU as the highest seeded teams to make the Final Four. Next Saturday in San Antonio, Loyola-Chicago will face Michigan with a spot in the national title game hanging in the balance.

“I feel like the world now knows Loyola is no fluke,” guard Marques Townes said. “We belong here.” The captain of the last Loyola-Chicago team to make the Final Four agrees. Jerry Harkness, who led the 1963 Ramblers to the national title, believes this team can equal that accomplishment. “It’s back. It’s back,” Harkness said. “And we’re going to win it. I really believe that now.”

These Ramblers could always play. They went to Gainesville and beat Florida in December. They rolled through the Missouri Valley Conference. But once the NCAA tournament began and casual fans who had never heard of the Jesuit school in Chicago’s Rogers Park neighborhood began tuning in, Loyola-Chicago morphed into an adorable, inspirational group that beat teams at the buzzer and then celebrated those victories with Sister Jean Dolores-Schmidt, the 98-year-old nun who serves as their team chaplain. The Ramblers—who had won their previous three tournament games by a total of four points—seemed slightly less adorable Saturday as they systematically destroyed the Kansas State team that bounced Kentucky and all its future NBA lottery picks from the tournament on Thursday night.

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Loyola-Chicago held the Wildcats to 34.8% shooting while making 57.4% of their own shots. The Ramblers always seemed to know what to do with the ball. They usually kept passing until a Kansas State defender made a mistake. If a defender crashed inside to stop a drive or defend the post, a Rambler found the open shooter he abandoned. If a defender went flat-footed on the perimeter, a Rambler blew past him and attacked the rim. The equal opportunity Ramblers also had a different star for the fourth time in four tournament wins.

“As you’ve seen from the games, they’ve always known who is hot for the night,” Sister Jean said. “Everybody’s not hot every night. So they pass the ball to him.” That player Saturday was senior guard Richardson. “Ben played his heart out tonight,” Townes said. “I can tell you right now that he did not want to go home. And all of us didn’t want to go home either. We just rode Ben’s energy bus today because he was the best player on the court.”

Richardson scored a career-high 23 on 7-of-10 shooting. He hit 6 of 7 three-point attempts, and most of his makes barely touched the net as they sailed through. “It was his turn,” said guard Clayton Custer, who began playing alongside Richardson in third grade in Overland Park, Kan. “We’ve all had big moments. We’ve all been in the limelight at a certain point in this tournament. I’m just so happy for Ben that it was his night. He made an open one. Then he made a contested one. Then the basket just gets bigger.”

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The Ramblers didn’t need to find a hero in the closing seconds because Townes shut the door on Kansas State with a layup that got him fouled and sent him crashing to the floor with 2:34 remaining. Townes got up, flexed and hit a free throw to give Loyola-Chicago a 17-point lead.

Later, Townes would carry the South Region trophy into the locker room like a hype man carries his boxer’s championship belt. He took a seat at his locker and cradled the trophy. “This is my baby now,” Townes said. As he spoke, team managers ripped down large sheets of paper that illustrated every offensive set the Wildcats might run and individual scouting reports on every player. The locker room had been similarly decorated before tournament wins against Miami, Tennessee and Nevada. “Our coaches don’t sleep,” Custer joked.

The Ramblers had clearly paid attention and memorized each of those sets, because they suffocated Kansas State’s offense. “They've embraced the process of what to do,” Loyola coach Porter Moser said. “And you can just see how locked in they are. They have a ton of fun with each other. You can see, they have a ton of fun with each other. They're enjoying this ride more than you guys think. It’s just that when it's time to lock in, they are locked in. It's because they want to win. It's in their genes.”

Eventually Townes did let go of that trophy. He passed it a few lockers down to Dinardi, who believed his team would win but never believed he would set foot on the court. Now he’ll be checking his email frequently. After each game, Sister Jean emails every Rambler a message. Dinardi said his message usually contains the same sentiment: “Nick, you did a great job on the bench, and I’m sorry you couldn’t get playing time.”

“So I’m actually excited to see what she has to say this time,” Dinardi said. “I got in.”

Dinardi played in an Elite Eight game, and his team earned its way into the Final Four. Both seemed impossible only two weeks ago. Now each is undeniably real.

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