There were two ways to watch Loyola’s Sweet 16 matchup with Oregon State on Saturday — one with eyes open for character-building purposes and the other with eyes closed for emotional protection.
You could watch stifling defense – yay! – or you could watch offensive basketball being set back a few centuries – make it stop!
At one point, after Loyola had missed a variety of shots in a variety of ways, I half-expected Sister Jean to snarl, “Don’t make me get out of this wheelchair and show you kids how to shoot.” It was like that for too much of the afternoon, and it’s why the Ramblers were on the painful end of a 65-58 loss that knocked them out of the NCAA Tournament.
Too bad another fun ride had to end, and too bad it had to end like this.
“I thought we played our tails off,” Loyola coach Porter Moser said. “I thought we did a lot of things. We didn’t shoot the ball well. At one point, we were 1-for-13 from three. We missed some layups early. We missed some really good three looks that, if one or two of them had (gone in), would have changed the direction of (the game.)”
It’s true that two very good defensive teams met Saturday, but it’s just as true that there was no reason for Loyola players not named Cameron Krutwig to go 1-for-18 from the field in the first half. It’s why Loyola had a measly 16 points at halftime. You don’t have to be a hoops junkie to know you can’t win like that.
“We just couldn’t find it,” Krutwig said, “it” being what every shooter feels when ball leaves fingertips.
The Ramblers mounted a nice second-half comeback, but it’s hard to come back from the cosmic crater of terrible shooting.
“It was kind of too little, too late,” Krutwig said.
Loyola’s 2018 Final Four run was beyond incredible, but you only get to do the miracle thing once. There wouldn’t be any sneaking up on opponents this time. Everybody knew about Krutwig’s basketball skills and instincts, and everybody knew about Lucas Williamson’s stickum defense. And still Loyola advanced in the tournament, a wonderful reflection of their ability and their determination.
The Ramblers did sneak up on many in the viewing audience, though, and that’s on us. We should have known better. But once reminded of why they were so much fun – teamwork, tough defense, etc. – we settled right back into the role of happy passengers. And, this being us, it didn’t take long to get ahead of ourselves. No. 8-seeded Loyola had upset No. 1-seeded Illinois in the second round. So getting past Oregon State, a 12th seed? No problem, right?
Well, there was a problem — the Beavers’ zone defense. Moser said Oregon State’s size made it hard for Loyola to get off good shots consistently. If your thing is watching teams being forced to take awkward attempts with the shot clock dwindling, you were in heaven Saturday.
Loyola’s coaches and players believed there was another tournament run in them, for good reason. When you play defense as well at the Ramblers do, it can cover up a lot of sins. But when you go 5-of-23 on three-pointers and miss seven free throws, as they did against Oregon State, there’s an excellent chance you’re going to lose.
This might be the end of long, successful chapter for the Ramblers. Will Krutwig and Williamson, the holdovers from the 2018 team, come back for another season? And has Moser, who has left a huge footprint in Rogers Park, outgrown his shoes? Is he ready for a bigger job with better pay?
For all involved, it was too much to think about after such a painful loss. Going out with a clang tends to drown out everything in the moment. But it’s good to have options.
The 2020-21 Loyola team is out of them, and that’s too bad. It’s why more than a few players were in tears after the loss. But, as Krutwig said, after the sting wears off, they’ll be able to appreciate a season that ended in the Sweet 16. Not bad at all, especially in the middle of a pandemic.
The idea of March Madness is to survive and advance. Oregon State did both Saturday. Loyola did neither. The concept of offensive basketball was being tended to by medical professionals.
It was nice while it lasted for the Ramblers. The only thing that got in the way of their ride was a rim.