When the buzzer finally sounded, icing Loyola University Chicago’s 71-58 Second Round win over 1 seed Illinois on Sunday, the team had a brief on-court celebration. There were hugs, fist bumps, everything you’d expect. Then, as big man Cameron Krutwig went to do a live postgame interview, his teammates began jogging off toward the locker room.
Head coach Porter Moser wasn’t having it. He brought his entire team back out and told them to go stand behind Krutwig for his interview.
“I wanted them to enjoy that moment,” Moser said after the game. “It etches in your memory, that moment right there. All the work you put in, all the effort you do to stay together, the sacrifices you make.”
Moser wanted his team to savor the postgame, much like the Ramblers seemed to savor every minute of a win you can’t even call a big upset.
The Ramblers, who entered the game ranked ninth in KenPom, led the Fighting Illini, ranked second, from start to finish en route to a berth in the Sweet 16.
If there was any doubt that Loyola deserved better than its 8 seed, it was gone in less than three minutes. The Ramblers built a 9-2 lead before the first TV timeout behind six early points from Krutwig. That lead grew to as many as 14 in the first half before a quick Illini spurt closed the halftime gap to nine.
Illinois, however, could not take that momentum into the second half. Even when it scored, Loyola responded. In fact, it was an offensive clinic for the Ramblers, as Moser was able to show off both his playbook and personnel. Every beautiful back-door play, open three, and flawless drive showed the world exactly what it had been missing while the high majors took the air time on ESPN. A disciplined offense and suffocating defense was how Loyola dominated the Missouri Valley, amassing 25 wins and finally breaking into the Top 25 late in the year.
Loyola is on to the Sweet 16 for the second time in three NCAA Tournaments, and this was the team’s most impressive tournament game in the Moser Era. On offense, Loyola executed to perfection. On defense, Kofi Cockburn had his moments, but Loyola was one of the few teams this year that was able to frustrate him, forcing him to work for his 21 points and seemingly wearing him down in the second half as the Ramblers continued to attack.
“It’s tough to get around him,” Krutwig said. “He’s like a brick wall. Going through him and scoring is a tough task.”
Illinois, which ends its season 24-7, had positive stretches, but could not string stops together as the Ramblers continued to find looks. Even while Krutwig filled up the stat sheet (19 points, 12 rebounds, 5 assists, 4 steals), he had plenty of help around him.
Lucas Williamson had 14 points on 5-8 shooting and Marques Kennedy scored 14 more. Braden Norris played more minutes than anyone, and had nine points, four rebounds, and four assists.
“I don’t even think we took him out and he’d be mad at me if I took him out,” Moser said. “You trust him at that point guard spot. He’s tough as nails.”
This is what Loyola does. The team can score from any position, making it almost impossible to guard. That versatility — and, sure, past tournament success — is why the Ramblers aren’t surprised to be heading back to the second weekend.
“We feel like one of the best teams in the country and I think we showed that these last two games, definitely with the contrasting styles,” Krutwig said. “[First Round opponent] Georgia Tech pretty much played all zone, tried to force us to make outside shots, whereas Illinois was physical, making us run our man sets. That’s the great thing about us. We can adapt to any style of play.”
We’ll find out what style of play the next opponent will demand later Sunday night when Oregon State and Oklahoma Sate tip in the late game at 9:40 p.m. ET. The winner of that one will face Loyola in the Sweet 16.
Whoever the Ramblers get, this is a familiar place for the program. Krutwig and Williamson, the two holdovers from the 2018 Final Four team, are now tasked with showing this next group how to handle the growing spotlight.
“You just have to try to find that balance between having the confidence in yourself, a respectful confidence for your opponent that you’re playing and just knowing that we’re here and we’re ready to do this,” Krutwig said.
It’s what they’ve done all year. None of this should be a surprise.