By Kevin Sweeney
Clayton Custer described the 2018-19 season for the Loyola Ramblers best: a “roller-coaster ride”.
Dealing with lofty preseason expectations coming off their miracle run to the Final Four a year ago, the Ramblers have been frustratingly inconsistent this season. A home loss to Furman was the first warning sign, and a putrid 42-point output in a loss at St. Joe’s left many jumping off the LUC bandwagon. MVC play saw the Ramblers post awful performances (35-point defeat vs Missouri State, blowout loss at Evansville), but also show flashes of the team we expected to see preseason.
With one game left to go before “Arch Madness” and a regular season title on the line, Loyola posted perhaps its best performance of the season, rolling past Bradley 81-68 in the final home game of Custer and Marques Townes’ storied careers for the Ramblers. Both excelled in front of a sell-out crowd that exploded after almost every bucket, with Townes posting 26 points and Custer adding 15.
“It’s very hard to do it [win the conference title] back-to-back, especially with the target that we had.” Moser said. “I’m just so proud of the resiliency of these guys.”
After spending much of the season avoiding discussions of last season’s team, Moser conceded on the court that there was some struggle to deal with the expectations that the Final Four run brought.
“I can’t even put it into words how much pressure these young men were in, and they responded and bounced back,” Moser said as he addressed the fans postgame.
“This team had to handle adversity a lot of times.” Custer said. “You go through ups and downs and you have to figure out a way to get through it.”
After a scorching start for both offenses that saw Bradley extend a 13-9 lead less than 5 minutes in, Loyola really locked in. They forced the game into the halfcourt and were able to string together consistent stops, conceding just two field goals over about an 8-minute stretch from the U12 to U4 media timeouts of the first half. While the Ramblers got stops on defense, the offense came alive, with Townes exploding for 18 first-half points (including 3 triples). Cameron Krutwig got the better of fellow sophomore standout Elijah Childs in the first, using his strength down low to beat up on the smaller Childs. All in all, it was a 30-12 half-closing run by the Ramblers to take an 18-point lead into intermission.
“The key was just setting the tone defensively,” sophomore guard Lucas Williamson said. “They are a great run-in-transition team, and we needed to get back and get our defense set. Once we did that, we were able to slow them down and have them play half-court basketball.”
Bradley tried to make a push in the second half thanks to some big plays from Darrell Brown and Ja’Shon Henry, but they were never able to truly make things interesting. The Braves cut it to 11 twice in the middle stages of the second half, but Loyola quickly went on a 13-4 run to push their lead to 20 and seal the deal.
Putting the game away early gave Porter Moser the chance to give his seniors one final send-off in front of the Rambler faithful, and with Townes and Custer exiting the floor one final time to raucous applause with just under 30 seconds to go in the ballgame.
“We’ve done this thing saying we want to bring in winners. Marques Townes– 3 high school championships, Clayton– 2 high school championships,” Moser said. “They are all about winning.”
A bright spot in the win was the continued emergence of Williamson, who returned Wednesday against Northern Iowa from a hand injury that had kept him out for more than a month. Williamson was strong, posting 10 points, 6 rebounds, and 4 steals while providing Moser with another backcourt option to rely on.
Loyola finishes the regular season 12-6 in conference play, a mark that leaves the Ramblers tied with Drake at the top of the conference standings. The Ramblers will claim the #1 seed in Arch Madness and the automatic NIT bid from the conference by virtue of having swept Drake in the regular season. They will take on the winner of Valparaiso and Indiana State on Friday in St. Louis as they begin their journey to a second consecutive NCAA Tournament.
The Braves were led by Brown’s 16 points along with freshman Ja’Shon Henry’s 15 points and 7 rebounds. Childs, one of Bradley’s top contributors this season, did not play in the second half. Dave Reynolds of the Journal Star in Peoria reported that Childs’ absence was a decision made by Brian Wardle. The Braves will play in the 4-5 game on Friday at Arch Madness.