ATLANTA (AP) — 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.
“Thank God you did it because we knew we would do it,” she said. “And when we were in the locker room ahead of the game, we just knew that we would do this. Our team is so great, and they don’t care who makes the points, as long as we win the game. And I said, ‘We’re gonna get the big W up there,’ and we did.”