After a grueling 2-week preseason boot camp, during which training sessions began at 5:45 a.m., coaches guided Loyola players into a video room to watch the “One Shining Moment” highlight reel from the 2017 NCAA Tournament.
“All your hard work, sweat and tears, aches and pains, it’s for a goal,” coach Porter Moser said. “To get where this program hasn’t been in 33 years.”
Loyola is having its moment now.
For the first time since 1985, the Jesuit school in Rogers Park officially became an NCAA Tournament team Sunday when the TBS broadcast announced its name.
The Ramblers are the No. 11 seed in the South Region and will play No. 6 seed Miami at 2:10 p.m. Thursday in Dallas.
A crowd of about 1,000 fans – many wearing their trademark long maroon-and-gold scarves – gathered at Gentile Arena to celebrate the historic moment with the players and coaches.
As they awaited the official announcement atop a stage at center court, Moser pulled in players Ben Richardson and Donte Ingram for a selfie. When the TBS broadcast announced Loyola’s name on a giant screen in the arena, players jumped up to celebrate. Many held up their phones to record the moment.
The band played, and forward Aundre Jackson called his mom from the stage. Team chaplain Sister Jean Schmidt, 98, cheered from her wheelchair. Ingram’s dad, Don, quickly started looking up Dallas hotels on his phone. A woman approached Jackson on the court as the celebration wound down, saying, “I don’t know you, but I have to hug you.”
“I got goosebumps,” Richardson said.
“I was just yelling, I was so excited,” Marques Townes said.
Loyola was a lock for the tournament as the winner of the Missouri Valley Conference tournament, in which they beat Illinois State in the final last week.
It has been a wild week for the Ramblers, whose media sessions during the season were mainly with reporters from the college’s student newspaper.
Moser and players have fielded 75 interviews in the last week, according to a team spokesman. They took in a Blackhawks game Thursday in a private suite at the United Center, where they were presented a Hawks sweater reading “MVC CHAMPS” on the back. The Cubs have reached out to the school about scheduling Moser to throw out a first pitch this season.
During the anticipation for Sunday, there was practice too. The Ramblers aren’t satisfied with a tournament appearance. Almost immediately after Loyola learned its fate, assistant coaches scurried off to break down film on Miami.
“This first game is still part of the race,” Jackson said. “We can’t be satisfied.”
The Ramblers (28-5) might have had a strong case for an at-large bid with a No. 28 RPI if they hadn’t won the MVC tournament.
Loyola’s 50.7 field-goal percentage ranks third nationally. Its defense ranks fifth nationally, allowing 62.2 points per game. The Ramblers are one of only 11 top-50 RPI teams to win nine or more road games.
Five players average between 10.5 and 13.4 points. Loyola’s No. 6 scorer, Richardson, was the conference defensive player of the year.
The Ramblers made waves Dec. 6 in Gainesville, Fla., with a 65-59 victory against then-No. 5 Florida. That win helped legitimize the Ramblers, and will make them an upset pick in some brackets.
Fans slowly took notice as the season progressed. The Ramblers, who averaged a league-low 2,222 fans per home game, announced a sellout crowd for their regular-season finale Feb. 24 against Illinois State.
This is the sixth appearance in the NCAA tournament for Loyola in its 100th season. The 1963 team, which played in the landmark “Game of Change,” is the only team in the state to have won a national championship.
The 1985 Loyola team, led by star Alfredrick Hughes, advanced to the Sweet 16.
This season’s team is eager to add to that tradition. In a speech before the watch party, Moser cited St. Ignatius’ quote, “Go forth and set the world on fire.”
“We’re ready,” Moser said to the crowd, “to set the world on fire.”