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SAN ANTONIO — Tears at the beginning. Tears at the end.
The Loyola Chicago players lined up in front of their bench arm in arm for the national anthem, and as it was being sung, freshman Cameron Krutwig started to cry. Next to him, senior Carson Shanks did the same. Other Ramblers appeared to be in tears as well.
“To be on that stage, Final Four, 70,000 people there, I just couldn’t believe where I was,” Shanks said a couple hours later, fresh tears in his eyes.
To see that kind of emotion before tipoff was to get a glimpse of what this epic underdog season has meant to the players who perpetrated it. Their appreciation of the moment was acute. What they had accomplished was truly beyond their wildest dreams.
“I just think we realized the stage we’re on,” Krutwig said, voice shaking, “and what we’re about to go do.”
They were about to play in the Final Four, culminating one of the great Cinderella runs in the history of college basketball. And with 14 minutes remaining Saturday night against Michigan, a No. 11 seed from the Missouri Valley Conference playing in its first NCAA tournament in 33 years led by 10 points. It looked like there was at least one more miracle left for Team Sister Jean, and the Ramblers would be playing for the national title Monday night, and those Harry Potter scarves were going to own the RiverWalk all weekend.
And then it all got away. It vanished in a torrent of turnovers — five straight during one agonizing stretch late in the game. Loyola’s grit and intelligence and togetherness and unselfishness couldn’t counteract a towering performance from Michigan center Moritz Wagner.
And when it was over, and Michigan had killed the fairy tale, 69-57, the Loyola tears really flowed.
Guard Marques Townes, who was stricken with leg cramps in the second half and was a shell of himself down the stretch, heaved sobs. Coach Porter Moser tried to console Townes: “No way,” he said to his weeping guard. “No way, man.” But there was no containing Townes’ sadness, as he buried his face in a teammate’s chest and cried some more.
Senior guard Ben Richardson was every bit as disconsolate, maybe more. With his college career over, Richardson all but collapsed on the shoulder of his best friend since elementary school, fellow guard Clayton Custer, as they walked off the court.
They grew up together in Overland Park, Kansas, playing ball in each other’s driveways, pretending to be Kansas’ Mario Chalmers making the game-tying 3-pointer in the 2008 national title game — which was played in this same Alamodome. They were high school teammates before Custer went to Iowa State and Richardson went to Loyola — and then Custer transferred and the two were reunited.
And now it was over, this incredible experience of playing together for more than a decade. Richardson bawled, and Custer rubbed his friend’s head, and it was one of the saddest sights you’ll ever see at a Final Four.
“You just hate to see your best friend like that,” Custer said. “We wish we would have won a national championship. We didn’t believe this was going to be our last game.”
Said Richardson: “Nothing made me happier than taking the floor with him and competing with him. Having him come to Chicago was a dream come true, and we did a lot of things that people probably didn’t think we could do. And we proved a lot of people wrong. And I love that guy to death, and we’ll never forget this.”
Nobody who watched this Loyola team will forget this. A team of modest recruits playing for a marginally accomplished coach at a mid-major program coalesced into a giant killer, taking down teams from the Atlantic Coast Conference, Big 12, Southeastern Conference and Mountain West. The Ramblers were the feel-good story of this feel-bad season, a group of overachievers who aren’t likely to be found within a million miles of an FBI wiretap or a sneaker company’s pay-for-play scheme.
Most of Loyola’s players will not go on to play professional basketball, and even fewer of them are likely to play in the NBA. They didn’t make a one-and-done stopover on the way to the pros. For many of the Ramblers, this is it — the end of the athletic road.
When that’s the case, the finality of elimination arrives with brute force.
“The more you invest in something, the harder it is to give up,” Moser said. “And they didn’t want to end it.”
Yet even in the devastating immediate aftermath of defeat, Loyola stayed true to who it is. The players filed off the elevated Alamodome court, made their way toward the locker room, and did what they always do: They bent down and gently hugged Sister Jean Dolores Schmidt, their wheelchair-bound 98-year-old team chaplain.
She became the smiling, wrinkled face of this Loyola journey, the belle of the Big Dance, as if the Ramblers needed one more reason to be likable. Sister Jean was always there, sending supportive emails to the players after every game and delivering her own scouting report before games. And so, when this special season was over, the Ramblers did what they always do and expressed their affection to her.
This time, the sweat on her shoulder from those hugs was mixed with the players’ tears. But with the wisdom of a nonagenarian, she provided some perspective to the young men.
“Sister Jean just said it was a great season,” senior Aundre Jackson said. “She was so happy to be on this run with us and we should keep our heads high and be happy with what we accomplished.”
That time will come. Loyola’s players will realize they were part of something rare and beautiful, a sporting alchemy when the collective became so much greater than the individual parts suggested it could be. They have stitched themselves into the lore of this great sporting event, becoming one of the touchstone teams who are invoked whenever the great underdog runs are recited.
George Mason. VCU. Butler. Now Loyola Chicago.
But the time for perspective wasn’t Saturday night. Some of the players spoke appreciatively of what they’ve accomplished, and so did their coach. But the faces told the real story of how you feel when a dream dies.
The first golf cart back to the Loyola locker room from the postgame interviews carried seniors Richardson, Jackson and Donte Ingram. Richardson sat shotgun next to the driver, arms folded tightly across his chest and his face the picture of dejection. Jackson and Ingram were on the back seats. They silently went back into the locker room to peel off their maroon and gold jerseys for the last time.
A while later, the second golf cart came back bearing Moser, seated facing backward. His wife, Megan, and four children, Jordan, Jake, Ben and Max, had been leaning against the wall outside the locker room for a long time, more than half an hour, keeping a wordless vigil. Moser had the box score from the game and a drink cup in his left hand, a grim look on his face. He sighed and heaved himself off the back of the cart, heading into the locker room without even noticing his family.
The road ended here for Loyola Chicago. Ended here in tears of appreciation and awe at the beginning, and tears of heartbreak at the end.
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