ATLANTA — Sister Jean and the Loyola Ramblers are headed to the Final Four.
This improbable NCAA Tournament just took its craziest turn yet.
Ben Richardson scored 23 points and 11th-seeded Loyola romped to a 78-62 victory over Kansas State on Saturday night, capping off a remarkable run through the bracket-busting South Regional.
“Are you kidding me! Are you kidding me!” coach Porter Moser screamed over and over again in front of the scarf-clad faithful who made the trip south from Chicago.
Nope, this is real.
The Ramblers (32-5) matched the lowest-seeded team ever to reach the Final Four, joining LSU (1986), George Mason (2006) and VCU (2011). Those other three all lost in the national semifinals.
Don’t bet against Loyola, which emerged from a regional that produced a staggering array of upsets. The South became the first regional in the tournament history to have the top four seeds — including overall No. 1 Virginia — knocked out on the opening weekend.
In the end, it was the Ramblers cutting down the nets.
After three close calls, this one was downright easy.
“We believed that we could do something like this — do something really special— because we knew we had such good chemistry and we’ve got such a good group,” Richardson said. “Everyone would say we were crazy. If we said this was going to happen, people would call us crazy, but you’ve just got to believe.”
Loyola continued to be inspired by its 98-year-old team chaplain, Sister Jean Dolores-Schmidt, who led a prayer in the locker room before the game, then was pushed onto the court in her wheelchair to join the celebration when it was done.
Sister Jean donned a Final Four cap and flashed a big smile. When asked how she was feeling, she gave a thumbs-up that said it all.
Joining the celebration were several members of the Ramblers’ 1963 national championship team, which played one of the most socially significant games in college basketball history on its way to the title. It was known as the “Game of Change,” matching the Ramblers and their mostly black roster against an all-white Mississippi State team at the height of the civil rights movement, setting up an even more noteworthy contest three years later. Texas Western, with five African-American starters, defeated Kentucky in the national championship game.
Les Hunter, a member of that ’63 team, said these Ramblers are capable of bringing home another title.
“I think they’re the best right now,” Hunter said. “They work so well together. They can play with anybody — anybody — right now.”
Even with a title on their resume, this performance came out of nowhere. Loyola had not made the tournament since 1985 until they broke the drought by winning the Missouri Valley Conference.
Then, as if benefiting from some sort of divine intervention, the Ramblers won their first three tournament games by a total of four points.
Finally, with the Final Four on the line, they turned in a thoroughly dominating performance.
Not the least bit intimidated, Loyola came out in attack mode right from the start against a ninth-seeded Kansas State team that rode a stifling defense to the regional final. Moving the ball just as you’d expect from a veteran squad with two seniors and two fourth-year juniors in the starting lineup, the Ramblers kept getting open looks and shot 56 percent in the opening half, opening up a 36-24 lead.
The Ramblers really turned it on in the second half.
Richardson swished a 3-pointer as he was fouled by Kamau Stokes, winding up flat on his back, smiling from ear to ear with his arms raised above his head. He knocked down the free throw to complete the four-point play, stretching the lead to 44-29.
Things went so well for the Ramblers that they actually increased their lead during the first television timeout of the second half. The officials went back and reviewed a replay of Donte Ingram’s jumper in the opening minute of the period, ruling he was behind the 3-point line when he released the shot to change the margin from 46-33 to 47-33.
Not that it mattered at the end.
Loyola: While Richardson was the top scorer, the Ramblers got contributions from everyone. Donte Ingram and Marques Townes were also in double figures, while burly freshman center Cameron Krutwig came up big on the inside.
Kansas State: The Wildcats were surrendering an average of 53.3 points per game in the NCAA Tournament and had not allowed more than 59 in their first three games. Loyola went by that with more than 9 minutes to go, which was more than enough to hold off the Wildcats even when things got a little sloppy in the closing minutes.
Loyola: The Ramblers are headed to San Antonio next Saturday to meet the winner of the West Regional final between Florida State and Michigan. They will try to become the lowest-seeded team to win a national championship, a distinction held by Villanova’s eighth-seeded team in 1985.
Kansas State: After their impressive run in the tournament, the Wildcats will face heightened expectations next season. All five starters, plus ailing forward Dean Wade, can return next season.