ATLANTA — Loyola Chicago trailed Nevada by 12 points, and Loyola Chicago led Nevada by 12 points. And by the time the first game of the NCAA tournament’s second weekend finished up, Loyola had eked out a 69-68 win that wasn’t all that pretty but did the job just fine.
With both fan bases standing at the end of the game, Loyola’s Clayton Custer dribbled out the majority of the clock, drove the lane, then found Marques Townes in the right corner. Townes’ 10th shot of the night found the bottom of the net, putting Loyola up four points with six seconds remaining.
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Caleb Martin followed with an immediate 3-point basket, but with 1.4 seconds remaining, the Ramblers ran out the clock and advanced to Saturday night.
Oddly, Nevada coach Eric Musselman opted not to foul when the Ramblers were up by one with possession of the ball and just over 30 seconds left in the game. (That strategy worked for Syracuse’s Jim Boeheim earlier in the tournament.) The Wolf Pack instead banked on their defense making a stop, but the Ramblers were able to get a clear look for Townes, which effectively ended the game.
Nevada’s night started out in a decidedly different manner. The Wolf Pack’s first three possessions resulted in layups, and for a few minutes, at least, it appeared this would be a Nevada rout. It rode an 8-0 run and nine early points by Jordan Caroline to go up by 12 points barely six minutes into the game. And then Nevada went colder than an airport slot machine, scoring exactly four points over the final 13:35 of the first half, the low point coming on a Cody Martin airball with just over a minute remaining.
Loyola, meanwhile, took advantage of Nevada’s iciness, posting a 20-4 run to close the half. The Ramblers took the lead on a pair of Marques Townes free throws with just over two minutes left in the half. Townes followed that up with a shot clock-beating 3-pointer – one of the few that actually dropped for either team – to put Loyola up 28-24.
Four of Nevada’s five starters are 6-foot-7 – guard Hallice Cook is four inches shorter – and the Wolf Pack takes pride in its position-less offense. But on Thursday night, at least in the first half, position-less drifted into directionless as no player was able to reliably shoot or even pass the ball early.
Loyola, meanwhile, effectively countered big with little, sitting center Cameron Krutwig for much of the game and working a speedy, small-ball lineup that Nevada’s bigs couldn’t handle.
Cody Martin began the second half the easiest way possible: A gentle off-the-glass layup. Barely a minute later, he scooped a would-be alley-oop out of the air. But he couldn’t hold off the Ramblers alone, and within about two minutes, Loyola’s four-point lead had grown to double digits.
But then the threes started falling for Nevada, and the Wolf Pack – with roughly 15 minutes left in their season – started playing with a touch of urgency. The only problem for Nevada: Loyola opened the second half with nearly 11 minutes of literal perfection, hitting every one of its first 13 shots. Tough to close a gap when your opponent is making every shot.
Another problem for Nevada: In addition to draining virtually every shot inside the half-court line, Loyola was devouring clock like a freshman housing free pizza; the shot clock forced the Ramblers into last-second or late shots three separate times.
Of course, Nevada had come back from 22 down to Cincinnati, so by that measure, a 12-point deficit wasn’t insurmountable. Once the Ramblers finally cooled down, and once Nevada finally remembered to start rotating on defense and going to the rim on smaller defenders, the Wolf Pack tied the game on a Cody Martin lay-in with just over four minutes remaining.
And then it was Loyola’s turn to deal with the nerves, the Rambler fans in Philips Arena’s Section 105 clutching at their Harry Potter-esque scarves. Aundre Jackson gave the Ramblers a touch of breathing room with a 3-point basket with just over three minutes remaining. But neither team could get out to more than a one-possession lead in the game’s waning moments
With both fan bases standing, Townes hit what turned out to be the game-sealing shot in the right corner and the Ramblers ran out the clock and advanced to Saturday night.
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