ATLANTA >> Loyola-Chicago is more than just the feel-good story of the NCAA Tournament.
Sure, smiles from 98-year-old chaplain Sister Jean and visits from members of Loyola’s ground-breaking 1963 championship squad generated plenty of warm and fuzzy feelings.
Those stories have overshadowed the fact these guys can play.
The nation’s hottest team is in the Final Four, and Loyola’s dominating 78-62 South Regional final win over Kansas State on Saturday night was the most convincing evidence yet that the Ramblers belong. The pride of the Missouri Valley Conference deserves to stand shoulder to shoulder with the nation’s elite.
“I think we left no doubts out there that we deserve to be in the Final Four,” said center Cameron Krutwig.
Don’t call Loyola upstarts any longer. It’s time to look past Loyola’s No. 11 seed and mid-major background. The Ramblers’ 14-game winning streak, the longest active streak in the nation, and 32 wins — including a regular-season victory at Florida — are no mirage.
“It’s amazing when you believe,” Loyola coach Porter Moser said. “They have believed and believed and believed. It’s awesome to see.”
The margin of victory in the Elite Eight was the biggest surprise for a team which won its first three tournament games against Miami, Tennessee and Nevada by a combined four points.
“We were a feel-good story after those buzzer-beaters, but I think people really started to take notice of us after that game against Tennessee , that we could be a legit team to go all the way,” Krutwig said, wearing a clipping from the net in his cap in the Loyola locker room.
A legit team, indeed.
Loyola (32-5) led by 23 points midway through the second half and took the lead for good at 7-5 when Ben Richardson, who scored a career-high 23 points, made his first of six 3-pointers.
“They were tougher than us from the get-go,” Kansas State coach Bruce Weber said.
Loyola displayed its toughness, unselfishness and balance in its two wins in Atlanta. Richardson was only the latest to take his turn in the spotlight on a team which doesn’t lean on one star.
“It’s because we all believe in each other,” said Clayton Custer, who had seven points and five assists. “For me and Ben and everybody, we’re just a bunch of guys that everybody laughed at us when we thought we were going to play Division I basketball. Nobody thought we could do any of this.”
Richardson had scored a combined 14 points in the Ramblers’ first three tournament wins. Saturday night was his time to lead.
“We’ve got so many unselfish guys, and we have so many weapons,” Richardson said. “And like we’ve been saying, it can be anybody’s night. We’ve shown that so far this tournament. Each one of these guys has had a big night.”
They have, and the Ramblers are getting attention for what they’re doing on the court — not just for the lovable Sister Jean.
There were no doubters left in the Kansas State locker room.
“They are a really good team,” Wildcats guard Cartier Diarra said. “They are really disciplined. We had no answer for them. So all credit to them, they are a great team and hopefully they make it all the way.”