ATLANTA — As he left the court Thursday, Loyola-Chicago guard Clayton Custer stopped to greet the Ramblers’ chaplain.
“Sister Jean,” Custer said to 98-year-old nun Jean Dolores Schmidt, “we broke your bracket.”
Sister Jean, who scouts every one of the Ramblers’ opponents, knows her hoops. But she made a mistake when she penciled in Loyola-Chicago for a loss in the Sweet 16. For the third time in this NCAA tournament, the 11th-seeded Ramblers hit a huge shot in the final seconds. This one was a three-pointer from the corner by guard Marques Townes to lift Loyola-Chicago to a 69-68 win against No. 7-seed Nevada. Loyola-Chicago will face No. 9 seed Kansas State on Saturday with a spot in the Final Four on the line. The Wildcats will be the lowest seeded team the Ramblers have faced so far in the tournament.
“I don’t care how far you break my bracket,” Sister Jean told Custer. “As long as you’ve broken it, you have to go a little more now.”
The Ramblers are still playing because of another huge shot with the buzzer looming. Townes assisted on the Donte Ingram three that sunk No. 6 seed Miami in the first round in Dallas. Saturday, Custer watched on the floor from his back as the game-winner hit the rim, hit the backboard and fell through the net to lift the Ramblers over No. 3 seed Tennessee. Thursday, the Ramblers led by one late. Nevada, which only had four team fouls, opted not to commit three more to make Loyola-Chicago win from the line. So the Ramblers held the ball until the shot clock had almost run dry. With five seconds on the shot clock and 10.7 seconds remaining in the game, Custer drove from the top of the key. He sought the same shot he hit against Tennessee, but Nevada’s Cody Martin funneled Custer toward his twin brother, Caleb. Custer dished to Townes, who took one dribble left to evade Caleb and launched a three-pointer. “I just got lost,” Caleb said later, “and it was costly.”
The ball sailed through with 6.3 seconds remaining to make it 69-65. Caleb Martin hit a three on the other end, but the Wolf Pack couldn’t get the ball back. “That’s something you dream about,” Townes said. “You're in the Sweet 16 and you hit a big shot like that. It's just amazing. I'm just blessed to be in that position.”
The Ramblers share a steadfast belief that any player in the rotation might find himself in that position. “The first night, Donte said anybody could have hit it,” coach Porter Moser said. “The next night, Clay said anybody could have hit it. Tonight, Marques and [Aundre Jackson] hit big shots.”
The idea that anyone can be a hero has been a consistent theme this season for Loyola-Chicago. Ditto for the idea that the Ramblers can win playing multiple styles. On Thursday, Loyola-Chicago made its first 13 shots of the second half by pushing the tempo following turnovers or Nevada misses. Eleven of those 13 baskets came on layups or dunks. But when Nevada started making shots again, the Ramblers had to score using halfcourt sets. They cooled considerably at that point, and the Wolf Pack—which came back from 22 down to beat No. 2 seed Cincinnati on Sunday—cut into the lead. Nevada trailed by 10 with 7:47 remaining. A Cody Martin layup with 4:06 left tied the score at 59. “They made their run,” Ingram said, “but we kept our composure.”
Loyola-Chicago also won by going small. The Ramblers frequently run their offense through freshman center Cameron Krutwig, who is a deft passer from the post. But after Krutwig picked up his second foul with 6:26 remaining in the second half, he played sparingly the rest of the way as Moser chose to match a Nevada lineup that often looks like five of the same player—all about 6'7" and between 205 and 235 pounds—with a group more accustomed to defending players that size.
Afterward, the Ramblers didn’t celebrate as lustily as they did after their two wins in Dallas. There was no dog pile. They didn’t race over to their cheering section to pay tribute. They lined up, shook the hands of the Nevada players and jogged off the court.
In the tunnel, Kentucky players waited to take the floor to warm up for their game against Kansas State. All those lottery picks watched as Loyola-Chicago players—most of whom will never sniff an NBA roster—streamed past. A few minutes later, someone asked Sister Jean to handicap a potential Elite Eight matchup between Kentucky and Loyola-Chicago.
“I’ll have to scout them first,” she said.
No she won’t.
All that talent will have to watch on television as the Ramblers keep dancing.