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Shakeia Taylor: The place to be for basketball in Chicago? Loyola’s Gentile Arena, where ‘fans are family.’

CHICAGO — Forget the Madhouse on Madison. Gentile Arena, home of Chicago’s Atlantic 10 team, is the place to be for basketball.

After getting what coach Drew Valentine referred to as “punked out” at St. Bonaventure 79-64 on Tuesday, Loyola Chicago faced projected second-round NBA pick DaRon Holmes II and No. 21 Dayton on Friday night.

Throughout the season, Ramblers fans have “showed up and showed out,” creating one of the best sports environments in town. But the idea of beating a ranked team and the allure of free T-shirts brought “the Pack” out in full force. Students started lining up to enter the arena for the 8 p.m. tipoff as early as 10 a.m.

Juniors Nyah Moore and Melisa Sulievic, friends who have been to almost every Loyola home game this season, arrived seven hours early to secure their place in line. Armed with Loyola gear, cowboy hats and signs dissing the state of Ohio, the enthusiastic pair told me they are always in the student section’s front row.

“It’s so much better than last year. We don’t talk about last year, that was a little hiccup. But we found ourselves again,” Sulievic said. “It’s just so fun because people recognize each other from the games and we make so many friends. The atmosphere is so good because we have something to be proud of. So when we’re good, it just makes it feel like a big old community.”

Sulievic and Moore, who was on Loyola’s cheer team last season and experienced the last-place finish from a different perspective, think this team is something special.

“I think watching the progression of this team, they all encapsulate the idea that this is a family,” Moore said. “You can see that they feel it. It’s not just something that they’re saying, they embody what it is to be a Rambler. They’re playing as a family and they have each other’s backs. And no matter what we’re in there, the fans are family.”

Students typically start entering Gentile Arena an hour before tipoff. They run to their section behind the media table in hopes of getting as close as possible and then yell as loud as they can. I was seated in front of them Friday. And while I probably could’ve used earplugs, I wouldn’t have had the full game experience. The Pack was so loud I couldn’t hear anything but them, and they never sat down — not even during halftime.

Flyers fans, not to be outcheered, were a rowdy bunch, but the Pack took it as a challenge and went harder. They stomped, taunted, sang and danced. My body rattled with the building and I struggled to hear the PA announcer. If Dayton went on a run, Loyola students did everything in their power to give their energy to the Ramblers.

After a first half in which the Ramblers defense did what they could with Flyers’ runs of 6-0 and 7-0, Loyola trailed 35-32. Loyola surged back in the second half to stun Dayton 77-72. Freshman rim protector Miles Rubin was critical with four blocks. It was the program’s first home win against a ranked opponent since 1986. Loyola improved to 21-8 overall and 13-3 in the A-10 behind guard Des Watson’s 24-point performance and 19 points, 11 assists and four steals from Braden Norris, who has started the most games in program history.

The volume in Gentile Arena after Norris hit two crucial 3-pointers had me wishing for those earplugs again. They had done it. The environment was exactly what you would expect for a playoff game in the pros, not a regular-season game at the small school in Chicago's Rogers Park neighborhood.

True to form, Valentine thanked the fans and asked them to return in his postgame opening remarks.

“I need you back on Saturday,” he said in the postgame media room. “I’m not looking ahead, I promise you I’m not. I need you back next Saturday for Senior Day. Those guys deserve to go out with a full arena, so we need all of our fans’ support. I know it’s spring break, but come back early.”

The Ramblers have two regular-season games remaining: Wednesday at Davidson and March 9 at home versus La Salle before heading to Brooklyn for the Atlantic 10 Tournament, at which winning it all would secure an NCAA Tournament bid.

Valentine and the Ramblers’ “culture” has not just spread in the locker room but to the fans too.

Sophomore Maddy Witecha attributed the team’s success to “being committed to the culture.” The students share the team’s passion because of what goes into choosing a school such as Loyola, she shared.

While fans all hope to experience March Madness, they are just as excited to continue to prove doubters wrong.

“You underestimated us,” Witecha said.