ATLANTA -- Loyola-Chicago's incredible journey to the Final Four didn't start in March or even at the beginning of this season.
Instead, you have to go back to when two of the Ramblers' key players, Clayton Custer and Ben Richardson, formed a friendship in Overland Park, Kansas. Long before the Missouri Valley Conference Player of the Year in Custer and the team's best defender in Richardson made Loyola-Chicago a national sensation, they were winning together at Blue Valley Northwest, compiling a 94-6 record in their four years and winning the state championship during their junior and senior seasons.
On Saturday their coach at Blue Valley Northwest, Ed Fritz, was here on the front row of Philips Arena beaming with pride after the Ramblers defeated Kansas State 78-62 in the South Regional final and counting this moment among his most rewarding in his coaching career.
"This is right up there at the top," Fritz told CBS Sports. "To have two players in the Final Four, and for them to play their butts off today, to see what Ben [Richardson] did today. I'm just so proud. He loves to compete, he had so much confidence tonight. Everybody fed off his energy. He's the best defensive player out there and tonight he brought his offense."
For Fritz to witness Richardson's career-best 23-point performance in the Elite Eight meant a lot to the Ramblers' star of the evening and the Most Outstanding Player of the South Regional. As he held the trophy with the net around his neck, Richardson reflected on how far he had come since his first meeting with Fritz more than a decade ago.
"That guy has seen me and developed me since I was in third grade," Richardson said. "I couldn't even get on the floor, I was the last man on the bench, and he's seen me grow from that to this stage. I know it's got to mean the world to him and it means the world to me that he's here. I can't wait to go give him a big hug."
Richardson got that hug, and so did Custer. Embracing with the coach who said that the pair "have been winners forever." Custer, like Fritz, loved every minute of his best friend's breakout offensive performance. It was a flip of what we're used to seeing from the two, and when it took a while for Custer to get going offensively, Richardson went out of his way to try and pick him up on the floor.
"They were kind of pressuring me and it was hard to get shots," Custer said. "Ben was dominating, and he kept trying to get me going. He kept talking to me, he kept trying to get me open looks, and he got me a couple that I missed. I finally got one to go in and he could tell I was excited and I was pumped about it. We both knew it was a good moment for both of us."
After winning their second-straight state title as seniors, Richardson went to Loyola while Custer went to Iowa State. After one season with the Cyclones where he only saw action in 12 games (and limited action at that), Custer transferred to Loyola. He had to sit out the entire 2015-16 season due to NCAA transfer rules, and after all the trials and tribulations of his college career was soaking in every minute of the moment on the floor after the game.
"It makes me think back to all the ups and downs I've gone through in my career," Custer said. "Having to transfer, going through tough years, to go through all that hard work and now be able to live this moment it makes everything worth it."
Fritz was ecstatic, emotional and selfless in describing both Custer and Richardson, "lucky to be a little part" of their Final Four success and looking forward to following the Ramblers on this magical run to San Antonio.