DALLAS — One would play Sherron Collins and throw the pass. One would play Mario Chalmers and sink the shot. Then they’d switch. Clayton Custer and Ben Richardson were sixth graders in suburban Kansas City when Chalmers hit a three-pointer to force overtime against Memphis and help Kansas win a national title, and middle schoolers in Kansas City circa 2008 were duty-bound to reenact Mario’s Miracle whenever they had spare time and a hoop nearby.
As the clock hurtled toward zero Saturday, one half of the guard tandem from Overland Park, Kan., launched a shot that will get reenacted in metro Kansas City and in metro Chicago for years. During a timeout before the Grant Williams free throw that gave Tennessee a one-point lead in a second-round NCAA tournament game, Loyola-Chicago coach Porter Moser had told his team to get the ball into Custer’s hands for a final shot. With 10.5 seconds remaining, Custer caught an inbound pass and dribbled across midcourt. The play called for 6’9” freshman Cameron Krutwig to fake a screen for Custer near the top of the key. Krutwig flashed up top then dove back toward the rim. That gave Custer space to race to the right elbow and fire a fadeaway jumper.
The 2018 Missouri Valley Conference player of the year faded so hard that he landed on his back. From the floor, Custer watched the ball hit the front of the rim. “The ball was like it was in slow motion,” Custer says. “I’ll never forget that feeling, just laying there.”
On the sideline, Moser was thrilled at the execution of the play. Then doubt crept in. “I thought it was good,” Moser says. “Then I saw it hit the rim.”
On the bench, Ramblers sixth man Lucas Williamson saw the collision between ball and rim and got excited. “That’s a friendly roll,” Williamson thought.
Ramblers wing Donte Ingram, who hit a three-pointer with less than a second remaining to beat Miami on Thursday, rushed through the lane to get in rebounding position as the ball caromed off the rim and then hit the backboard about a foot above the top line of the box. “I saw the angle it was at, and one of the Tennessee guys said ‘Noooo,’” Ingram says. “I knew it was going in.”
The 11th-seeded Ramblers didn’t celebrate immediately after the ball fell through the net. They had to defend a desperation heave for a fraction of a second against the Hurricanes, but the Volunteers had 3.6 seconds—plenty of time to get the ball down the court and set up an open shot. Tennessee guard Jordan Bone wound up with a decent look, but the ball bounded off the rim and the Ramblers fans in their maroon and gold scarfs roared to celebrate a 63-62 win that will send Loyola-Chicago to Atlanta to face the winner of Sunday’s Nevada-Cincinnati game.
Because the buzzer had sounded and they thought the game was over, the Ramblers had mobbed Ingram after his game-winner. (Officials later returned three-tenths of a second to the clock.) But they’d immediately played defense after Custer’s game-winner, so they waited in the locker room while Custer finished an interview on the court. When the redshirt junior hit the door, he screamed “Yeaaaaaaaaaaah” and the Ramblers doused him with the contents of every water bottle they could find.
A few steps from the door sat America’s most famous basketball-obsessed nun. Sister Jean-Dolores Schmidt left a scouting report on Moser’s desk the first day he reported to work in 2011, and at 98 years old still serves as a spiritual advisor and life coach for the basketball team and also for the 400 students who live alongside her at Regis Hall on Loyola’s campus. Sister Jean, as she does before every game, had emailed a scouting report to each player. On Friday afternoon, the Ramblers opened messages that told them to watch out for Bone, Williams and 6’5” forward Admiral Schofield, who proved Sister Jean prescient by hitting three triples in the first four minutes. Before the game, Sister Jean offered some words of wisdom. “Don’t let the Tennessee team members scare you with their height,” she said. “Height doesn’t mean that much. You’re good jumpers. You’re good rebounders. You’re good at everything. Just keep that in mind.”
Tennessee’s height meant even less on Saturday when 6’11” Kyle Alexander was ruled out with a hip injury. Without Alexander, the Vols struggled at times to close out on Loyola-Chicago’s shooters. Tennessee also had trouble on the offensive glass. Each game, the Ramblers choose a few skills at which their opponent excels and try to cut the opponent’s average in half. The Vols entered Saturday averaging 11.7 offensive rebounds a game. On a dry erase board in Loyola-Chicago’s locker room before Saturday’s matchup, coaches wrote that they wanted to hold the Vols to six or fewer offensive rebounds. They got exactly six.
Moser said after the Miami win that he would let his players enjoy being the toast of the tournament because he considered his team mature enough to handle the adulation. “You can’t get higher than that,” Moser says. “That was unbelievable. The next day, business as usual.” On Saturday, with Chicago celebrating St. Patrick’s Day and a Ramblers win, Moser said he’d let his players enjoy this one, too. He knows they’ll be locked in by the next practice.
Moser’s confidence stems from a team that is the culmination of what he calls a “grassroots rebuild” at Loyola. When he took the job, he had very specific ideas about how he wanted to stock his team. He only had one player from Illinois on the roster when he got the job. That had to change. He wanted to be a logical option for good high school players in Chicago and the surrounding areas. The current roster has six players from Illinois: Ingram and Williamson came through the Chicago public school system and Krutwig is from the suburbs in Algonquin.
Moser also wanted players who knew how to win. He prioritized recruits whose teams won championships. Seven current Ramblers won state championships in high school. That includes Custer and Richardson, who began playing together in third grade and who led Blue Valley Northwest High to a 94-6 record in four years that included four state championship game appearances and two state titles. But Moser didn’t get the pair out of high school. He only signed Richardson. Custer had interest from several Big 12 schools and signed with Iowa State.
But after playing in 12 games and averaging 5.8 minutes as a freshman in Ames, Custer decided to transfer. He took an unofficial visit to Creighton and scheduled an official visit for later. He then took an official visit to Loyola-Chicago, where he reunited with Richardson. He canceled his official visit to Creighton. After Custer sat out the 2015–16 season, the pair finally got to play together again in games last season. Because Custer had to sit out, he is a redshirt junior, but Richardson is a senior. Had Custer’s shot bounced differently off the rim, they would have played their final game together Saturday. But Richardson wasn’t worried. He’s seen Custer make that shot thousands of times. “It is fitting that he hits a big shot going one-two pull-up like we've been doing in the gym for our whole lives,” Richardson said. “I’m so happy for him in this moment. It's something I'll never forget.”
None of the Ramblers will forget this ride. But they also won’t let the moment consume them. They’ve bristled at the idea of being a Cinderella team, and wins against a No. 6 seed (Miami) and a No. 3 seed (Tennessee) have proven they belong in the tournament’s second weekend—even if they don’t look like it coming off the bus. Saturday, several Ramblers were asked if their less-than-imposing physiques might give them a psychological edge they can exploit in the tournament.
“We're not scary looking?” the 6’3”, 195-pound Richardson deadpanned.
“We don't scare you?” the 6’1”, 185-pound Custer cracked. “I think we're pretty scary.”
The Ramblers may not inspire fear, but a look at their season will inspire respect. They announced their presence on Dec. 6 when they went to Gainesville and beat Florida 65-59. They haven’t lost since Jan. 31, and nothing they’ve seen in the NCAA Tournament has fazed them. They’ve hit two game-winners. Their favorite 98-year-old nun has become a rock star. And now they’re headed to Atlanta for the biggest game of their lives.
“Sister Jean does have us going out in the Sweet 16,” Custer says. “So we have to prove her wrong.”