Loading

‘It Still Feels Unreal’: Members of the 2018 Final Four Team Reflect on Their Historic Run Two Years Later

Photo Credit: Hanako Maki

Article By: Abby Schnable

The COVID-19 pandemic has caused all sports to come to a screeching halt — including March Madness. It’s the first time the annual tournament hasn't been held since its creation in 1939.

March Madness is the ultimate sporting event for basketball fans. Its absence is making many people talk about their favorite moments, including the Ramblers. Both former and current members of the Loyola men’s basketball are reflecting on their magical run in 2018 and getting their fix through looking back on those memories.

After his first season playing professionally for Club Baloncesto Murcia (UCAM Murcia) in Spain was cut short, former Rambler and 2019 Missouri Valley Conference (MVC) Player of the Year Marques Townes said he’s rewatching all the games from their Final Four run.

“It still feels unreal,” Townes said. “You just look at our team and look where we came from. I just get caught looking at highlights. It’s just so unreal that we did this together as a team.”

When looking back on their time in the limelight, many players said they don’t immediately think about the masterful plays that got them to the Final Four. Rather, they focus on the off-the-court memories surrounding the journey.

“I don't think about the games,” said junior guard Lucas Williamson, who was a first-year on that bracket-busting team. “I remember very little. I know I made a shot here or there. ... I remember after the games: the bus rides, the police escorts, the plane, getting off the plane, just hanging out with the team.”

Photo Credit: Hanako Maki

At the Arch

The MVC Tournament’s slogan is “It begins here.” St. Louis is the gateway to March Madness, and the winner of Arch Madness punches its ticket to the big dance.

Loyola head coach Porter Moser said looking back, the first challenge that came their way wasn’t even on the big stage, rather in the three games leading up. The Ramblers entered the tournament 28-5 and despite talks of a potential at-large bid that year, Moser knew being a mid-major school lowered his chances.

“The elephant was in the room … ‘Are we going to get in if we don't win this?’” Moser said. “That was challenging because you kind of knew that elephant was sitting over there in that corner and we just really tried to focus on the process, one game at a time.”

Loyola was the No. 1 seed going into the tournament, which put a target on its back. The Ramblers had the advantage, but still had to win three straight games to advance.

University of Northern Iowa (UNI) was their first matchup. Former Loyola guard and 2018 MVC Player of the Year Clayton Custer said it was a game they played “a little bit too close” as the Ramblers snuck past the Panthers 54-50. They had another close one against Bradley University, escaping with a 62-54 win. They finally caught a breath against Illinois State University 65-49 to advance to the NCAA Tournament for the first time since 1985.

“It’s sad to think about that if we would have lost to UNI in that first game,” Custer said. “We would have never had the opportunity.”

Photo Credit: Hanako Maki

Band of Brothers

During Loyola’s four March Madness wins, a different player took a turn in the limelight each game. Donte Ingram’s last-second three-pointer pushed Loyola past the University of Miami. Custer’s clutch shot against the University of Tennessee earned them their first Sweet Sixteen match since 1985. Townes’ hit a late three-pointer to defeat the University of Nevada. Richardson’s career-high sent them into the Final Four.

“We were unselfish, which makes us harder to guard because we’re utilizing each other,” Williamson said. “We had a lot of weapons on both ends of the floor and people couldn’t match up with that.”

Two years later, many of the players on that roster have gone their separate ways, but the bond they made during that season created ties that they said will last a lifetime.

Photo Credit: Hanako Maki

“You become family,” Ingram said. “You're grinding together for success. People don’t see what it takes to get to that point. Knowing you put so much blood, sweat and tears into the outcome … that’s what really makes you family. You went through that together.”

Three of the starting five went on to play professional basketball. Two players are currently playing overseas in Europe, while Ingram is in the NBA G-League. After a brief stint in the Polish basketball league, Custer is back in the U.S. and junior center Cameron Krutwig is still playing at Loyola.

Richardson has played on two different teams since graduating and said it’s just a “different vibe” than playing with Loyola because he hasn’t spent four years of his life dedicated to his new teams.

“Looking back I appreciate what we had as a team much more now,” Richardson said. “Even then I knew it was special. You’re playing with all your best friends.”

Photo Credit: Hanako Maki

Creating Some Clout

The Final Four banner in the Gentile Arena rafters shows the mark the 2018 Ramblers left on the Loyola program. They also made their mark on Chicago.

Buildings lit up with maroon and gold during the 2018 season. Random Chicagoans jumped on the Rambler bandwagon. WGN made a “Chicago Madness” bracket this year asking people to vote on the best moments in Chicago sports history — Loyola’s Final Four run was one of 16 moments highlighted.

Photo Credits: Hanako Maki

Not only did they make history, but they also changed the sports atmosphere at Loyola. Players used to hand out flyers in residence halls to get people to attend games. Moser even dressed as Lu Wolf in 2013. Following that run, there was no issue getting people into the stands of Gentile.

“That’s probably the coolest part,” Custer said. “We changed the entire culture of the entire basketball program. We went from a school where everyone thought of the volleyball team and then we kind of turned into a basketball school overnight.”

Leaving a Legacy

Since 2018, Loyola has been more successful than any of the years prior to the run. Richardson and Ingram had seen the program turn around from sub-.500 conference records in their first year to only losing three games in conference play by their senior year.

“I envisioned that one day I wanted to win a national championship,” Ingram said. “Me and Ben [had] been having talks since day one that we stepped on campus. We [wanted] to get to the tournament and we [wanted] to make noise. Put the school back on the map.”

The moment he hit that shot against Miami, Loyola became a household name and the program changed for the better.

“I left something better than when I found it,” Ingram said. “I walked in freshman year seeing Coach Moser’s vision and I’m just happy that I was able to be a piece of that foundation. Setting it up for guys like Cameron Krutwig [and] Lucas Williamson. Now it’s their turn to take that stepping stone and run away with it as well.”

While only a first-year at the time, Krutwig solidified his name in the history books as well. He was named MVC Freshman of the Year and has become a contender for MVC Player of the Year every year since.

Photo credit: Loyola School of Communication

Krutwig said he’s hoping people looking back on the 2018 run the same way they think about the 1963 Championship team and the 1985 Sweet Sixteen team — two other Loyola teams who made it to the NCAA Tournament.

“You see the ‘63 banner up there,” Krutwig said. “You know what they went through and you think about those guys. ... When players come and they play here after I’m done, [they’ll] see that Final Four banner and [they’ll] they think about the guys on the team.”

The only remaining players from the 2018 roster are Williamson, Krutwig and redshirt junior forward Aher Uguak — who didn’t see any playing time due to NCAA transfer rules. Krutwig and Williamson players said they’re hoping they can carry the torch and teach every new guy what it feels like to be so successful on such an elite level.

“There’s no doubt in my mind [we can make it back],” Williamson said. “With the guys that we have, with the experience that we have now, we can no longer say we have six or so new guys. … Everybody has experience so there’s no more excuses.”

Photo credit: Henry Redman