Loyola Chicago, Sister Jean heading to Final Four after beating Kansas State

ATLANTA — Sister Jean’s Ramblers are headed to the Final Four.

Loyola Chicago defeated Kansas State 78-62 Saturday night in a South regional final that wasn’t ever particularly close, but still a lot of fun for everyone not wearing purple. The Ramblers used a combination of surgical interior slices and backbreaking 3-pointers to disrupt K-State from every angle, and the Wildcats had no reliable answer on either end of the court.

Now, the unlikeliest story of the 2018 NCAA tournament gets another chapter.

“This is not something where it just started,” Loyola Chicago coach Porter Moser said. “These guys have been investing for a long time on how hard they worked, how hard they believed, and we’ve kind of had this mantra about the process.

“People asked me out there, did you ever think you were going to the Final Four? And to be honest with you, after Selection Sunday, we didn’t say, ‘Hey, let’s go to the Final Four.’ We said, ‘What do we got to do to beat Miami?’ And then it was the next game, and then it was the next game. These guys have done an amazing job on laser-like focus on what’s right in front of them instead of skipping steps.

“Why not us? You have to have high-character guys that believe to truly do that.”

Loyola began its second half against Nevada on Thursday night shooting an ungodly – wait, let’s not use that word for Sister Jean’s team … let’s say “impressive” – 13-for-13. The Ramblers followed that up by draining their first nine shots from the field on Saturday, kicked off by Cameron Krutwig. Sidelined much of Thursday night with foul trouble, Krutwig threw his beef into the fray Saturday night, thundering for seven crucial points and five rebounds before half.

On the other end of the spectrum, Kansas State couldn’t get anything started on offense, and couldn’t slow Loyola on defense. Barry Brown Jr. was a slashing marvel, and Xavier Sneed filled the hoop from outside, but they were the lone highlights from the KSU side. The Wildcats couldn’t catch up to Loyola’s slash-and-pass game, and even on the rare instances when K-State could force Loyola into turnovers, the deficit didn’t shrink to any less than five in the first half.

Loyola-Chicago’s Lucas Williamson, Nick Dinardi and Loyola-Chicago Christian Negron, from left, celebrate winning a regional final NCAA college basketball tournament game against Kansas State, Saturday, March 24, 2018, in Atlanta. Loyola-Chicago won 78-62. (AP Photo/David Goldman)

The teams traded baskets early in the second half, a time when trading baskets simply would not do for K-State. The minutes shrank and the deficit didn’t. The key moment, emotionally speaking, came with just under 17 minutes remaining in the game. Krutwig kicked the ball out to Richardson beyond the arc; K-State’s Kamau Stokes charged out toward him, but couldn’t get there before Richardson released the ball, and couldn’t stop after. With a 3-point bucket and a foul, Richardson lay on the floor and spread out his arms and legs, starfish-style, a broad grin on his face.

And the hits kept on coming. A Donte Ingram two-pointer got changed to a three during an official timeout; Loyola was so good at scoring it was putting points on the board even during commercials. Krutwig rolled in an ugly-but-still-good layup, Custer hit a long 3-pointer, and Ingram sliced right through the bewildered K-State defense for an up-and-under bucket, and suddenly Loyola was up by 19 with 14 minutes remaining, and even the most pessimistic of souls started to dare to hope.

The chants of “L-U-C!” from the Gryffindor-scarved Ramblers faithful grew louder and louder as K-State’s hopes of a miracle comeback grew dimmer and dimmer. Kansas State’s offensive sets fell into a depressing pattern of one shot and done; at the other end of the court, Loyola seemed able to finger-roll in feather-light shots from anywhere on the court.

The deficit was a wall too high to climb. Even when Kansas State put together a 10-0 run with about five minutes left in the game, the Wildcats were still down 13. Richardson halted that run with another 3-pointer, his sixth of the night on seven shots, and K-State’s shoulders visibly sagged. And when Stokes’ own attempt at a clutch 3 ringed the hoop and inexplicably popped out:

And, well, that was about it for the Wildcats. Loyola began stretching the floor and devouring clock, and Kansas State could only foul.

Kansas State can look back on this tournament with pride, having knocked off one of the nation’s marquee programs in Kentucky on Thursday night. But Loyola’s got a lot more to look forward to.

“We’ve believed in each other and in the process this whole year, and we knew that we could do special things,” said Loyola’s Ben Richardson. “So it didn’t really matter what the outside people thought or what they thought we could do. All it took was the belief in the locker room and each one of the coaches, my teammates, my brothers. And to have that kind of moment, it’s surreal, and I can’t even put it into words.”

We’re not through with you yet, Sister Jean.

Jay Busbee is a writer for Yahoo Sports. Contact him at jay.busbee@yahoo.com or find him on Twitter or on Facebook.

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