INDIANAPOLIS (AP) — If the pregame prayer sounded more like a scouting report, it was. And if Sister Jean didn’t have any plans for next weekend, well, she does now.
Loyola Chicago carried out its 101-year-old superfan’s plans to a T on Sunday, moving to the Sweet 16 with a 71-58 win over Illinois, the first No. 1 seed bounced from this year’s NCAA Tournament.
Cameron Krutwig delivered a 19-point, 12-rebound masterpiece and the quick-handed, eighth-seeded Ramblers (26-4) led wire to wire. They befuddled a powerful Illinois offense to return to the second weekend three years after their last magical run to the Final Four.
Hilliard Bradley graduate Braden Norris, a redshirt sophomore for the Ramblers, started Sunday’s game and finished with 9 points, 4 rebounds, and 4 assists.
A hard habit to break for these Ramblers. And a classic case of nun-and-done for the Illini.
Loyola Chicago will next play either Oklahoma State or Oregon State, who were set to meet later Sunday.
“We just executed, played our game and controlled the game from the start,” Krutwig said. “Nobody was really doing anything out of body or out of mind. We just stuck to the game plan.”
Who wrote it?
Some of Loyola’s wisdom comes from Sister Jean Dolores Schmidt, the venerable team chaplain, who headlined the team’s 2018 run to the Final Four and received both COVID-19 vaccination shots so she could travel to Indianapolis to see what inspiration she could provide in 2021.
Before taking in this game from the luxury suite — sitting in her wheelchair and decked out in her trademark maroon and gold scarf — Jean delivered a pregame prayer that could’ve been stripped straight from a John Wooden handbook.
“As we play the Fighting Illini, we ask for special help to overcome this team and get a great win,” she said. “We hope to score early and make our opponents nervous. We have a great opportunity to convert rebounds as this team makes about 50% of layups and 30% of its 3 points. Our defense can take care of that.”
From her mouth to their ears.
Illinois (24-7) earned top seeding for the first time since its own Final Four run in 2005, but fell behind by double digits in the first half and never got within striking range. The Illini committed 16 turnovers and scored 23 points fewer than their season average. A team that lives for easy buckets in transition got two fast-break points.
Illinois’ 7-foot second-team All-American Kofi Cockburn finished with 21 points on 7-for-12 shooting, but worked hard for every shot against the pestering presence of Krutwig and Co.
Illinois’ handsy guards, Lucas Williamson (14 points) and Keith Clemons (two steals), kept first-team All-American Ayo Dosunmu from ever finding his comfort zone. He finished with nine points, 11 under his season average. Illini guard Trent Frazier went 1 for 10 for two points.
Loyola built a 14-point lead late in the first half, and though Illinois made a few 4-0 runs in the second, it never made this a one-possession game.
“We tried everything in the bag, everything that’s made us one of the most efficient offensive teams today,” Illinois coach Brad Underwood said. “Just for whatever reason (it) didn’t work.”
Krutwig is also an All-American — a third-teamer who looked all-world in this one.
Posting up, pivoting, dishing when necessary and causing all kinds of trouble on defense in the paint, the 6-9 senior played bigger. He also had five assists and four steals. Krutwig was with Loyola for the last Final Four trip, and has since become one of only four players in Missouri Valley Conference history to record 1,500 points, 800 boards, and 300 assists.
And there’s a chance for more.
It’s a turn of events that Sister Jean could see happening. Before the game, she suggested Loyola, the MVC champs who have the nation’s best defense (55.7 points per game) and were ranked 17th in the final AP poll, might have gotten a raw deal with a No. 8 seeding that put it up against a 1 so early.
There was only one way to deal with that — by winning. To anyone outside of Champaign — or now holding a freshly obliterated bracket — it’s hard to argue this Loyola team isn’t the breath of fresh air this tournament-in-a-bubble sorely needed.
Sure, there have been upsets, some drama and little teams doing big things.
But there’s nobody quite like Sister Jean to put the whole thing in perspective. The Ramblers and March Madness — what an inspiration.
“It’s amazing what happens when you get a group of young men who believe,” coach Porter Moser said. “And these guys believed.”
IN THE CROWD
On other days, for other teams, Jerry Harkness might have been the biggest celebrity spotted in the crowd for Loyola Chicago. The point guard sparked Loyola’s national-championship run in 1963 — a win, of course, that Sister Jean watched on an 11-inch TV loaned to her by a friend.