ATLANTA -- Loyola-Chicago has captured the hearts of college basketball fans everywhere this March, and now it will have a chance to compete for a national championship on the game's biggest stage after beating Kansas State 78-62 to be crowned as champions of the South Region.
Senior guard Ben Richardson scored a career-high 23 points to lead the Ramblers, who will play Michigan in the Final Four.
"Ben sat there and watched Donte [Ingram] and Clayton [Custer] and Marques [Townes] and Dre [Jackson] have big shots," head coach Porter Moser told CBS Sports after the game. "And he comes in there. He is the epitome of character and winning. Just so awesome to see him do that. And that's such a great lesson for so many kids. There was no jealousy or envy, it was about winning and he was ready mentally to step up when it was his time."
Arguably the toughest corner of the bracket, the one with the overall No. 1 seed and four conference tournament champions, has been where we've found this year's most unlikely outcomes, from the first-ever 16-over-1 upset to a mid-major from the Missouri Valley Conference making a Final Four run as a No. 11-seed.
On the court Loyola packed all of the thrills, beating the third-place team in the ACC (Miami), the SEC regular season co-champions (Tennessee) and the Mountain West champions (Nevada) by a combined four points. Off the court Loyola introduced the rest of the country to Sister Jean, a kind-hearted and noble face of the NCAA Tournament after a season mostly defined by scandal tied to an ongoing corruption investigation by the FBI.
Loyola's team fits the model of what so many love about college basketball and this tournament as well. This group doesn't wow you with size or speed when they get off the bus, but the ball moves faster than any player and no one passes the ball better as a team than the Ramblers. There isn't a bad passer on the team, and any one of the rotation players has the potential to to be the team's primary offensive threat on a given night. It's one of the things that makes Loyola so good in the closing moments of these close games: opponents can't turn their attention to any one player because anyone on the floor could potentially be the go-to guy of the moment.
The unusual way the region unfolded gave Loyola an Elite Eight foe different from the top seeds that George Mason and VCU had to beat in 2006 and 2011. After beating a No. 6, a No. 3 and a No. 7, the last test was No. 9 Kansas State. The way the game unfolded broke the mold from previous tournament wins as well, with Loyola leading by as many as 21 in the second half and then holding on for the program-defining win in the final minutes.
It’s a Cinderella story!— CBS Sports (@CBSSports) March 25, 2018
For the first time since 1963, Loyola is going to the Final Four! pic.twitter.com/6QUQngjbuM
While Loyola's Final Four run certainly counts as a Cinderella story in the the lore of the tournament, these haven't been massive upsets or a big surprise to anyone who has followed the Ramblers in 2018. Winners in 32 of their 37 games this year, Loyola has been one of the most successful teams in all of college basketball this season.
Now we all will tune in to see if Loyola can eclipse the accomplishments of George Mason and VCU, the last two mid-major teams to make a run to the Final Four from the 11-line. If there's a reason to think the Ramblers can do it, it's their body of work heading into the NCAA Tournament. George Mason and VCU each got bounced from its conference tournaments, requiring an at-large bid. In the case of George Mason, the NCAA Tournament bid came with national criticism. In the case of VCU we know the Rams were one of the last teams in the field because their path began in the First Four.
LSU also made the Final Four as a No. 11 seed in 1986. All three No. 11 seeds lost in the national semifinals.
One of the things that driven Loyola all season has been a hunger to achieve more. Loyola won a share of the MVC regular season title, but there was a drive among the players to win the crown outright. While outsiders buzzed about the Ramblers' need to win the conference tournament to avoid sweating out Selection Sunday as a mid-major team on the bubble, the players remained focused on the task at hand and left to question as to their postseason future by winning the league's auto-bid in Arch Madness.
Loyola had not made the NCAA Tournament since 1985 prior to this season, but it's not totally foreign territory for the program. Though it did not occur in their lifetime, the players talk about how Loyola is the only program in the state of Illinois to have a national championship. With a 33-year tournament drought already snapped, Loyola now gets to fly to San Antonio with a chance to recapture some of that 1963 magic, with Sister Jean front and center, of course.