It didn’t even take until the first TV timeout.
Was top-seeded Illinois simply too much for Loyola? Had the eighth-seeded Ramblers been irrevocably wronged by the NCAA Tournament selection committee? Wouldn’t it be so much better if this matchup happened a round or two down the road?
Three little minutes answered those questions. That’s all it took for the Ramblers to go up 9-2 Sunday in Indianapolis. Senior center Cameron Krutwig hit the Illini with a little lefty jump shot, a basket on a lob and a jump hook over 7-footer Kofi Cockburn before they even knew what hit them. Braden Norris added a three and it was cut to commercial and — holy Moses — here we go with a game we’re all going to remember for a long time.
Loyola (26-4) is off to the Sweet 16 after a 71-58 upset of Illinois (24-7). The Ramblers kept defending, kept executing their offense, kept believing and kept coming. The Illini got knocked on their heels, couldn’t fully and never — repeat, never — managed to stop being outplayed.
“It’s amazing what happens when you get a group of young men who believe,” Ramblers coach Porter Moser said.
Many Loyola supporters didn’t want this game, didn’t believe it was right. Not in Round 2. But can any of them imagine not having it now?
“We got an 8 seed,” Krutwig said. “That’s just the hand we were dealt. We feel like we’re one of the best teams in the country.”
Not long ago, a Ramblers team reaching the Sweet 16 would’ve been shocking in itself. But we’re past that now. The Final Four run of 2018 is in the books. Another one — by what just might be an even better team — is well in the making.
“We worked so hard all year to get to this point, to make the tournament, to compete against the best,” Krutwig said. “If you want to be the best, you have to beat the best.”
In her pregame prayer with the team, 101-year-old chaplain Sister Jean Dolores Schmidt asked that her boys might put a flurry of points on the board quickly and “make our opponents nervous.” Well, she nailed it. The Illini, who came in soaring off a Big Ten tournament title and a first-round romp against Drexel, didn’t get Cockburn going early and never got All-American Ayo Dosunmu or senior guard Trent Frazier in gear.
If the Illini weren’t nervous, they did a good job fooling everyone watching. They wilted in the face of Loyola’s nationally No. 1-ranked defense and lapsed repeatedly at their own defensive end. Krutwig was everywhere at once with 19 points, 12 rebounds, five assists and four steals. Cockburn hung in there with a game-high 21 points, but junior Dosunmu — in what almost certainly was his final college game — had little positive impact in 38 of his worst minutes of the season.
Dosunmu was stripped by defensive stopper Lucas WIlliamson and Krutwig on back-to-back possessions near the end, when the Illini were desperately trying to come back. After that, there was nothing left but the awful grind of the clock and the searing pain brought with each tick to an Illini team that was terrific, hugely likable and seemingly of championship caliber. In college basketball, March is a most fickle mistress.
“I definitely feel like I let my team down today,” Dosunmu said, “but I can take it. I can take the criticism.”
There ought not be too much of it. Dosunmu is the player who led the program’s rise from the depths under coach Brad Underwood. He led by example — in the gym every day, in or out of season, remaking his body and putting up shots until he was a superstar come to life. And when it was over he hugged all his teammates before they left the court and told them to hold their heads high.
“His jersey will hang in our rafters someday,” Underwood said.
But the brackets belong — once again — to the Ramblers. For a bit longer, the state of Illinois does, too.
Williamson, a senior, played one of his best games. Sophomore Marquise Kennedy was an unexpected marvel off the bench. There were many contributions and moments that added up to a victory even bigger and better than any achieved by the 2018 team.
Taking down a No. 1 seed? The state’s flagship school? A place that definitely doesn’t roll out any welcome mats for the kinds of players who end up at Loyola?
Maybe the only way to top all that is to win the whole thing.
Moser’s first game as coach came in November of 2011 at Illinois. It was the first of many blowout losses in a 7-23 season. That was the last time the schools met until Sunday.
“It means a lot to Loyola, where we were to where we are now,” Moser said. “And we’re not done.”