In the end — and on the whole — things sure worked out for the Valley.
Freshly-ranked Loyola Chicago’s visit to just-ranked Drake was not only an intriguing clash of the top two teams in the Missouri Valley, but also one of the most anticipated mid-major matchups of 2020-21. In may ways — at least in the aggregate — it did not disappoint and, more importantly for the Valley, might have given it just what it needed in trying to secure that sweet two-bid status as March nears.
It may not necessarily have looked that way after game one.
The Ramblers broke open a game that Drake led by three at the half, shattering the Bulldogs with a 27-8 run to begin the second half. As the hosts went cold, the Ramblers flipped that halftime deficit into a dominant 27-point win that had the word “letdown” squarely lingering around the hyped weekend series.
Porter Moser talked about the effort in a release.
“I thought that was a high-level, physical game. At halftime, we said we had to stay with it and keep doing what we were doing, just guard at a higher level. Our second-half defense was really good and helped create offense.”
Really good is an understatement. Cameron Krutwig and Aher Uguak walling off the paint and Lucas Williamson flying around the perimeter helped the Ramblers show why they’re the darlings of KenPom, as the country’s most efficient defense obliterated the Bulldogs. They were especially effective against Roman Penn, holding the point guard to just 2-13 shooting, and in total allowing just seven made field goals in the second half.
The blowout, however, came with a big asterisk. The broken foot that Drake star ShanQuan Hemphill suffered during the Bulldogs midweek win against Northern Iowa was always going to cast a large shadow over the Loyola series. Indeed, the athletic perimeter threat may have been just what the Bulldogs needed as they searched for answers against the Ramblers’ smothering defense in that fateful second half.
And that made what happened Sunday all the more impressive.
The Bulldogs salvaged not only the series, but perhaps also their grandest dreams in a gritty overtime time. It certainly wasn’t pretty, with teams combining for just 101 points over 45 minutes of basketball, but it was Drake that fought back late to pick up a marquee win. With points at a premium, the Bulldogs seemed cooked as Loyola took a 42-32 lead with just under eight minutes left before grinding themselves back into the game behind Tremell Murphy’s 17 points.
Darren DeVries talked about the win in a release.
“I thought today was a chance to showcase what our team is about,” DeVries said. “Yesterday we were disappointed and today we found our identity defensively.”
As Garrett Sturtz and the Bulldogs flummoxed Loyola on their final possession in overtime, they may well have given the Valley exactly what it needed in trying to secure two bids to the NCAA Tournament for the first time since 2016 — and first time since Wichita State left the league.
Loyola’s Saturday domination was a statement, Hemphill or not. Their advanced metrics have been sparkling, but seeing them put the clamps on a solid team on the road was the type of narrative that pairs well with those numbers. More importantly, it gave the Ramblers their first Quad 1 win of the season, and helped elevate their NET ranking (10) into the top ten.
With how helpless the Bulldogs looked in the second half of the Saturday game, the Valley as a whole may have thought the most realistically optimistic outcome would’ve been another Ramblers win that solidified their claim to a good seed (perhaps, off the dreaded #8/#9 line). But counting out Drake — which itself was ranked just two weeks ago — would’ve been foolish.
By grinding out a win, the Bulldogs themselves grabbed a Quad 1 win and vaulted themselves up to 35th in the NET, in the end somewhat taking advantage of the Ramblers’ impressive performance at their expense the day before. It likely doesn’t turn them into any sort of at-large lock, but may give them some margin for error — particularly as three of their final five regular season games come away from Des Moines.
The Bracket Matrix currently projects the Ramblers as a #9 seed and the Bulldogs as an #11 seed. Loyola still may not be as high as it seemingly deserves, and Drake is still very much flirting with the bubble, with TourneyCast giving them just a 40.1 percent chance fo an at-large. But, with the dust settling after the big-time weekend clash, the dream of a two-bid Valley is very much alive (and one that could include Hemphill).
The league couldn’t have asked for much more after a thrilling weekend.