ATLANTA — Four years ago, when he was a senior at Blue Valley Northwest High School, not one person from Kansas State paid any mind to Ben Richardson, even though he grew up just 120 miles east of Manhattan in Overland Park.
Listed generously by 247sports as a 6-foot-2 guard checking in at 180 pounds, few high-majors at all took note of him. Richardson settled for offers from mid-majors like Indiana State, Manhattan, UMKC, Northern Colorado, Richmond, Stephen F. Austin, UNC Wilmington, Wright State and, of course, Loyola University of Chicago.
Richardson landed on the rader of Ramblers’ head coach Porter Moser. He and his assistants liked what they saw.
“I can’t really explain it,” assistant coach Bryan Mullins said Saturday night as he stepped over confetti. “That guy… Ben is just a winner. He just shows so much confidence.”
Four years after he finished up his high school playing days, no one in the state of Kansas could overlook Ben Richardson any longer. Bruce Weber finally noticed him. His assistant coaches did too. And so did every Kansas State fan in Phillips Arena, and every Wildcat watching from home.
On the biggest stage, in the Elite Eight, Richardson had just played the best game of his college basketball career.
The Missouri Valley Conference Defensive Player of the Year was superb at neutralizing K-State’s attack, but on this rare occasion, he was actually better on the offensive end.
Richardson, a senior, poured in a career-high 23 points on 10 shots. He also tallied six rebounds and four assists. His finger prints were all over Loyola’s 78-62 win, which put the Ramblers in the Final Four for the first time in 55 years.
“I was in a rhythm and my teammates kept finding me,” Richardson said. “That’s why this team is so special. We got really unselfish guys and it shows. We’ve got a lot of weapons. We found the open guy all night. We scored 78 points on a really tough defense.”
Indeed, for the first time this NCAA tournament, it was Richardson’s time to shine.
In each of Loyola’s first three March wins, it needed late-game magic. Donte Ingram scored 13 points and hit a bucket at the buzzer to beat No. 6 Miami. Clayton Custer’s holy roller rattled into the rim to help Loyola beat No. 3 Tennessee. Marques Townes hit a huge corner three-pointer to give the Ramblers the edge over No. 7 Nevada.
To get through the Elite Eight, the Ramblers didn’t need heroics in the final seconds. Consistently, they made magnificent plays throughout the game with sharp, timely passes, smart shots, and smothering defense.
And leading them in each facet of the game was Richardson.
“I’ve dreamed this every night and it doesn’t even come close to the reality,” he said “I’m so happy.”
Richardson had been saving his sweet shot and best scoring for the chance to make his wishes come true. In his four years of college basketball, he had scored 20 points or more in a game just twice — 22 points in a 2016 loss to Drake, and 21 points in a 2015 loss to Toledo. Before Saturday night, Richardson’s season-high scoring mark was 14 points, which came against Division III Eureka.
So, what made Richardson so good against Kansas State?
Someone who knows a bit about basketball — and someone who is also a Loyola grad and an Overland Park native — had some takes on the guard.
“He was hitting those threes and he’s tough,” said Les Hunter, a member of Loyola’s 1963 National Championship team. “He’s better on defense than offense. He spreads the floor and can pick up other guys. He’s a really good player.”
Weber finally had to take some notes on Richardson too, and eventually had try to figure out how to subdue him. Early in the second half, Richardson came off a screen, caught a pass from Cameron Krutwig and fired a three-pointer from the top of the key. It connected and Richardson was fouled. He hit that the free throw too, giving the Ramblers a 15-point advantage.
After the shot, Weber shrugged almost as to say, “How do you stop that?”
“They were very physical, very disciplined, and then Ben Richardson stepped up and had his shining moment,” Weber said. “His magic game, and that’s what you need.”
What Richardson needed when he was coming out of high school was a team and a school that felt like home. Even if Kansas State had offered him a spot on the team, there’s a decent chance that Manhattan wouldn’t have been that place. His lifelong friend Clayton Custer went to a Power 5 — Iowa State — straight out of high school and felt out of sorts there, eventually reuniting with Richardson at Loyola.
For Richardson, the difference between Loyola and every other school that may or may not have looked at him in high school was Moser.
Surrounded by confetti, television cameras and microphones on Saturday night, Richardson stood at the three-point line and answered questions, still trying to clear the haze from an improbable run by the Ramblers.
While wearing a Final Four hat, he began to answer one question, but then stopped mid-sentence, and just blankly stared at the jumbotron in Phillips Arena. They were showing Moser climb the ladder to take a cut at the net.
“Sorry, I got to watch coach,” Richardson said. “I know he’s dreamed about this too. I just got to see his face.”
A reporter mentioned that, right after the buzzer, Moser hopped over the press table to run into the stands to hug his wife and kids.
“He did? That’s awesome,” Richardson said. “Hey, he’s got a little more athleticism than we give him credit for.”
Richardson watched the screen for a second longer. A smile grew over his face. He shook his head and walked away, but his final comment was loud and clear.
“I love that guy!”