San Antonio, meet Sister Jean. Loyola-Chicago became the fourth No. 11 seed in NCAA tournament history to earn a Final Four berth, beating No. 9 seed Kansas State 78-62 in the South Regional championship game.
This wasn’t an upset. And Loyola’s Final Four run certainly isn’t a fluke, having beaten teams from the ACC, SEC and Big 12 along the way. The Ramblers are 32-5 for goodness sakes, and the country is seeing what a team that passes, moves and shoots at a high level can do in this era of college basketball parity.
Loyola opened the game making eight of its first 10 shots and started the second half 9-for-10. That’s a pretty good recipe for success in any game.
Kansas State, a highly-rated defense, really couldn’t do anything to slow the Ramblers down. They shot 57% percent for the game, and a Loyola team that won its first NCAA tournament games by a combined four points didn’t need to sweat this finish.
Ben Richardson, the Missouri Valley’s defensive player of the year who grew up in the Kansas City suburbs, finished with 23 points and made 6-of-7 from the three-point line.
Kansas State, typically a poor shooting team that made nine three-pointers against Kentucky, only made 6-of-25.
Loyola-Chicago was locked in from the start, making eight of its first 10 shots as it built a 19-7 lead. All five starters had scored by the first media timeout, highlighting the crisp ball movement and decision-making that has been a hallmark of the Ramblers’ run.
Though Kansas State stabilized a bit and Loyola’s shooting percentage regressed to the mean, the lead was still 12 at halftime as Richardson made his third third-pointer of the game on the Ramblers’ final possession.
Kansas State guard Cartier Diarra, who was a non-factor in the first half, scored seven straight early in the second and made the Wildcats much more functional on offense. But Loyola’s lead actually grew from 12 to 14 by the first media timeout, and Kansas State couldn’t get enough stops over the next few minutes to turn the momentum.
Loyola went on a 7-0 run to build a 23-point lead on Lucas Williamson’s reverse layup with 9:40 left, at which point Kansas State’s offense started to take the kind of quick, contested shots it isn’t really built to make.
Kansas State got the game back within long shot range when Kamau Stokes’ three-pointer got it back within 15 with 6:10 left, then cut it to 64-52 at the four-minute mark. But the Wildcats couldn’t get enough stops down the stretch to make it interesting.
Unlike the other mid-major 11 seeds that made the Final Four (particularly George Mason in 2006 and Virginia Commonwealth in 2011), this Loyola team looks particularly dangerous. These last two weeks weren’t about a hot shooting run or pulling off a series of mega-upsets. Loyola simply played to its level in every game, got a little bit of late-game good fortune and could be a real threat to get to the championship game.
Under the circumstances, Kansas State pretty much maxed out over the last two weeks. Its leading scorer Dean Wade played only eight minutes in the tournament, all of them in the Sweet 16 against Kentucky, and suffered from too much pain to be effective due to a stress fracture. Just getting to an Elite Eight and recording that massive win over Kentucky should solidify Bruce Weber, whose popularity has ebbed and flowed over the course of his tenure. All the key contributors on the team still have eligibility remaining, pointing to more success next season.