Loyola Chicago’s past March Madness success made all the difference

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The record will show that Loyola of Chicago beat Georgia Tech 71-60 on Friday, March 19, 2021. Years from now, the NCAA Tournament archives will back that truth up: March 19, 2021. That’s when this win happened.

That will be a lie, of course.

Because the Ramblers won this game three years ago. More to the point, they learned how to win this game during those heady weeks of March 2018, when they won their first three games in the NCAA Tournament by a total of four points, when they established themselves as basketball darlings.

Yes, the courtside presence and prayers of Sister Jean Dolores Schmidt might have helped a little. But the on-court presence of two seniors — especially Lucas Williamson — was far more important. Williamson and fellow fourth-year player Cameron Krutwig lived through that forever run. They learned what NCAA pressure is all about.

“When you have veteran guys who play with confidence,” Loyola coach Porter Moser said, “everyone else feeds off that.”

And the Ramblers needed to be fed. Georgia Tech, missing ACC Player of the Year Moses Wright, broke from the gate early and jumped all over the Ramblers. If it seems incongruous that the ACC team was the lower seed in a match-up with a Missouri Valley team, it shouldn’t: Loyola has rolled through this season.

But Tech was the reigning ACC champ.

And the Yellow Jackets looked the part. With 13 minutes and 46 seconds left in the first half, they had jumped to a 13-3 lead. Moser called for time.

There is an old saying about important college basketball games: You can’t necessarily win them in the first 10 minutes, but you sure can lose them. Maybe a different team with a different pedigree would have limped into the huddle, stricken by the moment.

The Ramblers went a different way.

“That start made us settle down,” Williamson said.

Moser agreed.

“We’ve been behind before,” he said.

When play resumed, a different Loyola emerged: aggressive, confident. The Ramblers moved the ball, started killing it from 3-point range, and started to clear the backboards in a way that, by game’s end, offered staggering evidence of how to win games like this.

“Embrace the moment,” Williamson told his teammates, and then he proceeded to score a team-high 21 points on 8-for-13 shooting from the floor. The Ramblers seized a 30-25 lead by halftime, held off another Tech surge to start the second half (the Jackets took a 43-40 lead eight minutes in) and then slowly pulled away.

“We played with poise and experience,” Moser said.

They played, in truth, like they’ve been here before, mostly because they’ve been here before, because they’ve won close NCAA Tournament games. It is because of that fact that you aren’t going to see any of the Loyola traveling party making more of Sunday’s game with Illinois than simply the next game on the schedule.

It isn’t, of course. The Illini are a No. 1 seed, they are the Big Ten, they are playing as well as anyone in the country. Still, it is Loyola that is the only Illinois school to win an NCAA Tournament (back in 1963) and it is Loyola that has more recently visited the Final Four.

“Being from Illinois, to see two ranked teams, it’s a great basketball state,” Moser said. “There’s have a huge amount of passion for basketball in the state of Illinois, so to see these two teams to earn a ticket to the Sweet 16 is great for the state. We have respect for them.”

Illinois had better return the favor. Only one team from Illinois has made a recent habit of winning the kinds of games you need to win in March. And it isn’t the Illini.

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