ST. LOUIS, Mo. (March 7) – Sometimes, in order to fully appreciate a team’s season, one has to take a look at what was expected of them before it.
In the case of Loyola (Ill.), if one would’ve told Rambler fans before the season that their team would win 19 games and advance to the semifinals of the Missouri Valley Conference Tournament, they would’ve been tickled pink. Hopefully they’re able to take that to heart after the sixth-seeded Ramblers fell to No. 11-ranked and second-seeded Northern Iowa 63-49 in the semifinals at Arch Madness on Saturday.
The Ramblers gave it their best shot against the Panthers, but other than a brief run early just could never break through a seemingly permanent 10-point wall UNI kept up the entire game. The Panthers controlled the pace, and in the end kept Loyola 32 points shy of its total the night before in its stunning 81-53 quarterfinal blowout of No. 3 seed Indiana State.
Junior forward Montel James scored 14 points and was 6 of 7 from the field while working hard down in the post. Sophomore guard Milton Doyle, still working back into shape off the bench, had 11 points and six assists. The Ramblers could never get out and go, though, allowing UNI to shoot 51.2% and getting out-rebounded 27-18, including zero offensive rebounds.
“It’s a great word. ‘Frustrating’ is the word,” said Moser in response to a reporter’s question after the game about if the Panthers’ style was frustrating to play against. “We want to try to get tempo. They don’t want to let you get tempo. I think we only took 39 shots. We shot 46%…(but) we only took 39 shots.”
A loss to Northern Iowa in St. Louis does nothing to diminish the season Loyola has had. Picked to finish 10th in the Valley after finishing last in the league a year ago, the Ramblers finished a solid sixth, and it could’ve been even more. Loyola lost five straight in January, a stretch that coincided with a lingering ankle/foot injury to Doyle that in all sidelined the team’s most explosive player for 12 games and slowed him in numerous others this year.
Loyola’s 19-12 record is a nine-win improvement over last year’s 10-22 mark. It includes a surprising 11-2 start that included the title of the Las Vegas Classic in December. There, the Ramblers blew out Texas Tech and in the championship game upended Boise State, a team that won the Mountain West regular season title and is almost certainly headed to the NCAA Tournament.
“I’m proud of how far we’ve taken the program to date,” said Moser. “The move into the league was just harder than people think. For us, I’m proud of where we’ve moved it, but I’m not satisfied where we are, and I’m hungry to get to what Northern Iowa and Wichita has, the two elite teams in the league.”
Just as significantly for the Valley as a whole, Loyola’s ascendance is already justifying the league’s choosing to add the school in the summer of 2013 and has proven there is indeed life after Creighton.
The Ramblers have won games as underdogs in each of their first two trips to Arch Madness, reaching the quarterfinals as a 10 seed last year and the semifinals this year as a 6 seed. In fact, as of Monday night, Loyola’s RPI of 123 this year is 22 spots ahead of that of the most recent school to leave the MVC.
There’s still a long ways to go. Loyola fans have not come anywhere close yet to replacing that of Bluejay fans at Arch Madness. But the Ramblers are still a work in progress, and with four starters scheduled to return this year, plus other Chicago-area programs still struggling, there is an opportunity to create a buzz in that city, one that would result in far more of the maroon and gold scarves worn by Loyola faithful this year in St. Louis.
This year there could still be an opportunity to do more, if the Ramblers choose to. An NIT bid is unlikely, but a bid to the CBI or CIT should be easily available. An end to the 30-year streak without an NCAA bid will have to wait at least another year for the school that won the NCAA title in 1963, but Loyola is on the right track.
“Very proud of the effort, the culture of where we’re going,” said Moser. “We’ve taken it a long ways, but by no means are we satisfied. We’re very hungry to be on this stage and be sitting here talking about Sunday’s game.”
“It should fuel us in the offseason. We talked about last year fueling us, and then this year we were picked unanimously 10th in the league. Milton was out 12 games. So very proud of the guys. I think the arrow’s definitely going up. The excitement is going up, but unequivocally we’re not satisfied.”