By Kevin Sweeney
There are a million ways to win a game.
A comment often made by Loyola head coach Porter Moser was turned around on him postgame by senior Marques Townes, who greeted him in the locker room with those nine words.
It’s not often you’ll win a college basketball game against a conference rival when you don’t make a field goal in the game’s final 6:16, but that’s exactly what Loyola did Saturday at Gentile Arena. The Ramblers held on for a 67-64 victory, sending a sellout crowd that fought the elements to make the trip home happy.
“You would have been looking at a quarantine game four or five years ago,” Moser said postgame, noting the snowstorm hitting Chicago and Loyola students not yet back on campus for the spring semester.
Unable to score down the stretch, the Ramblers turned to their defense to win them the game.
Moser said postgame that to win close games in such a competitive conference, you have to do three things down the stretch: take care of the ball, make your free throws, and get defensive stops.
That’s exactly what they did, getting several key stops late in the ballgame including one on the final possession of the game. They also made all four free throws in the final minute.
On that fateful possession, Loyola locked in, taking ISU out of their rhythm and forcing a deep, contested three by Zach Copeland that didn’t fall. Notably, Redbird star wing Milik Yarbrough wasn’t in the game for that final possession after he committed a turnover on a critical possession with under a minute to play.
Postgame, ISU head coach Dan Muller said that leaving Yarbrough on the bench for the final possession was strategic, attempting to put more shooters on the floor needing a three to tie.
After a putrid offensive showing Tuesday night against Evansville, the Ramblers came out firing on all cylinders in the first half. Loyola posted 40 first-half points after scoring just 48 the entire game against Evansville, shooting 59% from the field and not committing a single turnover.
“After the game [against Evansville] we were all pretty disappointed and the locker room was pretty intense,” sophomore big man Cameron Krutwig said. “We responded really well with some great days of practice.”
Despite the dynamic offensive half, Loyola couldn’t put away the Redbirds in the first, with a few costly mistakes complimented by a few big buckets by Yarbrough and senior guard Keyshawn Evans kept the Redbirds within six at the break.
The Loyola lead ballooned out to as many as 12 in the second half, as the Ramblers took a 50-38 lead on a 3-point play by Townes with 15:06 to go in the game. Townes finished with 21 points on 9-18 shooting to lead all scorers, continuing a strong senior campaign.
Asked postgame whether Townes is an underappreciated player in the conference, Moster said “He’s surely not underappreciated with us.” Townes ranks in the top ten in the conference in points produced, minutes, assists, and field goal percentage. He also leads the league in defensive win shares, per Sports Reference.
The Redbirds didn’t fold, immediately going on a 9-0 run to cut the deficit to just 3. They also locked in defensively, holding Loyola to just 39% from the field in the second after the 59% performance in the first.
But when it came to winning time, Illinois State just couldn’t quite get over the hump, failing to execute on several key late-game offensive possessions that could have gave them the lead.
Beyond Townes’ 21, Loyola also got 13 points each from Krutwig and senior point guard Clayton Custer. However, Moser emphasized that he’s still looking for more bench production beyond freshman Cooper Kaifes, who gave the Ramblers eight points in 24 minutes.
The Redbirds fall to 9-8 and 2-2 in MVC play, a disappointing mark for a team that came into the season as one of the favorites in the conference. They were led by Milik Yarbrough’s 19 points and 10 rebounds along with Keyshawn Evans’ 16 points.