The moment wasn’t too big for Loyola-Chicago. Moe Wagner was.
For 35 minutes or so, the Ramblers appeared poised to become the first double-digit seed ever to play for the national championship. They led Michigan by 10 points on two separate occasions during the second half, and seemed generally unfazed by playing on college basketball’s biggest stage. Then Wagner, the one player the Cinderella from the Missouri Valley had no answer for, took over. The Wolverines won a 69-57 game whose final score will always tell a lie.
The truth is, all things considered, Loyola-Chicago handled itself as well as any double-digit seed we’ve ever seen in the Final Four.
LSU (1986) and Syracuse (2016) were major surprise national semifinalists from major conferences that got hammered by better, expected national semifinalists from major conferences. George Mason (2006) wilted on the big stage, looking every bit the part of a mid-major team that didn’t belong in a one-sided loss to eventual national champion Florida. VCU (2011) was handled in an ugly game by a Butler team carrying its own Cinderella banner.
Regardless of Saturday’s game and regardless of what happens on Monday night, the 2018 NCAA tournament is destined to be remembered for the success of a pair of unexpected March Madness underdogs as much as anything else.
First, of course, there will always be UMBC becoming the first 16-seed in history to topple a 1-seed. But we’ll also remember Loyola, 11-seed that toppled three favorites in the final seconds, that crashed the Final Four, that made a 98-year-old nun an international celebrity, and that ultimately pushed Goliath to the brink on the season’s final Saturday.
Every now and then, we as fans are privy to the opportunity to see a player or team do something that instantly turns them into a sports immortal.
This can be a positive. From now until the end of time, an air-balled shot that is caught and dunked just before the final horn will be “pulling an NC State” or “shades of Lorenzo Charles.”
This can be a negative. Since 1986, be it Little League or the Major Leagues, there has rarely been a routine ground ball going right through a fielder’s legs that hasn’t drawn some sort of reference to Bill Buckner.
Positive or negative, it’s rare that we go into a game knowing that one of these transcendent events may be about to take place. Monday night would have been one of those rare exceptions had Loyola taken care of Michigan. Now it won’t be, and that’s a shame.
Still, even if Loyola wasn’t able to establish itself as the ultimate March Madness Cinderella for this year and every year to come, the Ramblers still carved their own place in college hoops history.
If an 11-seed gets hot and advances out of the tournament’s first weekend next year, that team is destined to be covered in therms of “are they this year’s Loyola?” Any coach of a mid-major conference tournament champion that has been dismissed as quickly as the bracket is released on Selection Sunday will carry the battle cry of “anything can happen in March Madness, I think you all remember Loyola” right up until the moment his team takes the floor.
It may not be a national championship, but it’s more than enough for a program that wasn’t supposed to be here.
Let’s not forget that Loyola was making its first NCAA tournament appearance since 1985. Let’s not forget that just 11 years ago, Porter Moser was being fired at Illinois State after four dismal seasons. Let’s not forget that there are no Ramblers who seem even remotely capable of sniffing the NBA.
Most of all, let’s not forget that just over a month ago, this same Loyola team nearly saw its March Madness dreams die with in a 54-50 slugfest with Northern Iowa in the quarterfinals of the Missouri Valley Conference tournament. Lose that game, and the team likely never even hears its name called on Selection Sunday.
The difference between being a March Madness immortal and a March Madness never was is often razor thin. For the sake of sports, it’s a good thing Loyola-Chicago wound up on the right side.
Thanks for the memories, Ramblers.