Loyola never looked back in this one. After three heart-pounding wins that came down to the last shot, the Ramblers fate was rarely ever in doubt Saturday as they dominated 9th-seeded Kansas State 78-62 en route to the NCAA Final Four.
Loyola jumped out to an early 19-7 lead and carried a 36-24 lead into halftime, leaving the Kansas State Wildcats looking almost shell-shocked at times. KSU’s vaunted defense was no match for the Ramblers unselfish, torrid offense. Loyola shot just under 60 percent for the game, and 50 percent from the arc. Coach Porter Moser’s players looked completely unfazed as they rambled through perhaps the school’s most important game since 1963.
"They have believed and believed and believed," Moser told CBS Sports. "It’s awesome to see. This just didn’t happen two weeks ago. It’s not one person, it’s not one player, it’s a collaboration of a lot of people."
Each game has produced a different hero. This time, it was senior guard Ben Richardson, who had been relatively quiet on offense throughout the tournament. Richardson lit up the Atlanta arena with a career high of 23 points on 7 of 10 shooting, a staggering 70 percent. Kansas State, coached by former Illinois and Southern Illinois head coach Bruce Weber, tried to make a run, closing within 12 points with a little more than six minutes left to go in the game. But it would prove to be too little, too late.
The regional final win is something that almost nobody in the nation, save for Moser and his squad, could have predicted early in the season. A program that was an afterthought to everyone outside the Rogers Park campus quietly shocked 5th-ranked Florida in December, serving notice that they were a team to be reckoned with. Then, a dominant run through the Missouri Valley Conference and a conference championship victory scored them an 11 seed in the NCAA Tournament, their first appearance since making it to the Sweet 16 in 1985.
In round one, they squeaked by 6th-seeded Miami and 3rd-seeded Tennessee by one point. Ditto their victory against 7th-seeded University of Nevada.
Photos: Loyola fans attend a rally at Gentile Arena on Sunday, March 25, 2018.
The team has caught the attention of the nation, as has the 98-year-old team chaplain, Sister Jean Dolores Schmidt, whose bobblehead doll is destined to become a best-seller on campus. The team will travel back to Chicago on Sunday after cutting down the nets in Atlanta, before heading to San Antonio next weekend in what is likely to be one of the most memorable moments in Chicago sports history.
For all of the magic moments in Illinois basketball history, it only seems fitting that Loyola is the team that travels back to the heights of the sport, as it is the only team from the state to win an NCAA national championship (DePaul won the NIT Championship in 1945). Jerry Harkness, a star on that 1963 squad that broke barriers by being the first to start three African-American players, watched the current team make history of its own.
Final Four fever
In the meantime, it is pandemonium on campus, and all of this Final Four fever has really given a financial boost to the school.
Lines were long Monday at the campus bookstore to get brand new shipments of Final Four shirts. There are also shirts with the team’s uber-famous chaplain that say “Powered by Sister Jean.” Store administrators say they will be getting shipments in every single day this week to keep up with demand. They say they’ve got workers on double shifts and have pulled several other people in to staff the runaway sales.
“Business is good!” said store manager Stacy Zapko. “We have had non-stop traffic the past two days, online traffic is brisk and in-store traffic is just as brisk.”
Students who would like to head to the Final Four may want to ask their parents for a little financial assistance. The school sold out a 500-person charter plane package, but is offering another travel package that would include hotel and game ticket, but not airfare:
$2,649 for a single person
$1,729 per person for a double package
$819 for a child
Note: This story was originally published on Saturday, March 24.
Follow Paris Schutz on Twitter: @paschutz