Loyola-Chicago’s improbable ride ends in heartbreak at the Final Four

SAN ANTONIO, Texas — When the magic ended Saturday for Loyola-Chicago, the young men who had been draped in glory throughout the most unforgettable month of their lives retreated to the locker room to collect themselves. Senior Ben Richardson — red-eyed and sniffling — leaned on head coach Porter Moser, who put his hand on Richardson’s shoulder.

At the moment, it was all too soon. Too soon to ponder how a Michigan team the Ramblers led by double-digits early in the second half managed to mount a furious rally to seal a 69-57 win. Too soon to consider what’s next for this collection of underdogs. Too soon to look back and remember how this wonderful journey unfolded.

This bunch could feel only destiny’s punch in its gut, a first for the Ramblers in a fortuitous postseason.

Loyola-Chicago is the fourth 11-seed in NCAA tournament history to reach the Final Four, but the Ramblers stopped short of another milestone, an appearance in Monday’s national title game. And that’s the only loss they could process in the locker room of the Alamodome in San Antonio, because dreams don’t die.

They shatter. “Everybody in this room,” Loyola-Chicago senior Nick Dinardi said, “thought we were going to win the national championship.”

Loyola-Chicago’s captivating run to a national semifinal matchup against 3-seed Michigan generated a buzz unlike any we’ve witnessed for a double-digit seed. The Ramblers’ started 2-for-10 against the Wolverines, a stark contrast to the breathtaking offense previously displayed by a team that had entered the game leading the NCAA tournament with a 41.4 percent clip from beyond the arc.

But then their shots began to fall and their defense tightened, backing the narrative that their advancement to Monday’s game was a preordained affair. It wasn’t a crazy thought.

They topped Miami with a buzzer-beater in the opening round. Clayton Custer‘s game winner bounced around like a pinball before it found the net against Tennessee in the second round. Marques Townes broke Nevada with a 3-pointer in the corner with just under seven seconds to play in a win in the Sweet 16. A dominant effort against Kansas State in the Elite Eight secured an improbable berth in the Final Four.

On Saturday against the Wolverines, the Ramblers were headed for late drama after seizing a double-digit lead. It seemed as though the modest Jesuit school in Chicago, cheered on by a famous, 98-year-old nun named Sister Jean was headed for another “Is this really happening?” victory.

It felt like another scene in Loyola-Chicago’s Disney movie, but Michigan had no concern for cute storylines. The Wolverines launched a remarkable run and sent the Ramblers back to the Windy City.

“The ball wasn’t really bouncing our way,” said Townes.

In the locker room after the game, the Ramblers’ heads were heavy, bent down and angling toward the floor. They spoke of missed shots and blown opportunities. Townes focused on the cramps he endured in the second half and wondered if he’d consumed enough liquids before the loss. Donte Ingram, solemn and fatigued, stood alone on a wall outside the locker room, waiting for the shuttle to carry him to the postgame interview room.

Moser shook hands with a few folks in the Alamodome corridor and shook his head as he walked. As a school official pushed her wheelchair past reporters, Sister Jean said nothing.

“I didn’t really notice a turn,” Dinardi said. “It never really sank in that we were going to lose this game until there were 30 seconds left.”

The Ramblers needed help. They struggled to reflect on the significance of their achievement in the minutes after the loss to Michigan, so they had to be reminded of their path.

A decade ago, Illinois State fired Moser. He bounced back after a stint at Saint Louis under Rick Majerus. In 2011, Loyola-Chicago, a school seeking its first winning season in five years, hired him. The team he assembled had no promises. No big-time scholarships. Moser had no five-stars in his locker room. Mostly no-stars.

So how’d the Ramblers get to the Final Four? A better question might be how they even got to the NCAA tournament?

In December, they lost to Milwaukee by double digits. Losses to Missouri State, Indiana State and Bradley would follow. They’re ranked 229th in average height on KenPom.com. They were the only team in San Antonio without a player listed in ESPN’s 2018 mock draft.

To get here, Loyola-Chicago beat a Miami squad with a potential lottery pick (Lonnie Walker IV). It beat the SEC champion (Tennessee). It beat one of the hottest offenses in America (Nevada). It beat the Kansas State squad that eliminated Kentucky. The Ramblers had Michigan, winner of 13 in a row entering Saturday’s game, on the ropes and desperate in the second half of a national semifinal matchup.

As reporters asked Ramblers players about the meaning of the moment, their tears dried up. They began to speak of the future and history, which will always highlight their success in the 2017-18 season.

They were praised by Chance the Rapper. Drake apologized for not being able to attend Saturday’s game. They met Russell Westbrook. They were on national television multiple times. They stayed in five-star hotels and couldn’t walk the streets without autograph requests.

They might never be able to navigate the Loyola-Chicago campus again without causing chaos.

“It was the best time of my life,” Custer said, “so I’m sad it has to be over.”

Yes, the loss hurt. But the Ramblers left the Alamodome as heroes.

“This season right here will be remembered forever,” Townes said.

And the agony of the loss, the emotion they couldn’t shake after the game, will soon fade and give the Ramblers a clear view of everything they accomplished, every unbelievable chapter of the most magical ride of the 2017-18 season.

“In a couple of weeks, a couple months,” freshman Cameron Krutwig said, “the memories are certainly going to outweigh the pain of this.”