7:07 PM EST, CBS – Line: Nevada -2, Over/Under: 143.5
It’s an All-Cinderella Affair as a pair of mid-majors look to make that next, giant leap to the Elite Eight with the Eleventh Seed Loyola-Chicago Ramblers battle the Nevada Wolfpack in the Southwest Regional Semifinal from Phillips Arena in Atlanta, Georgia. In a year in which the NCAA Tournament has been nothing short of maddening, the most unlikely of the unlikely still standing has to be Loyola-Chicago (30-5, 15-3 in Missouri Valley Conference), the Missouri Valley Conference Champions, who have made their long, awaited return to the Big Dance after a Thirty-Four Year Drought. In fact, this is only the sixth instance in which the Ramblers have ever participated in the NCAAs, though they did manage to win a National Championship all the back in 1963. Indeed, this Program has come a very long way under Porter Moser, who in his seventh season on the sidelines in the Windy City has taken a downtrodden group that won just Seven Games in his first year on the job to their first 30-Win Campaign in School History. Winners of Twenty out of their last Twenty-Two Outings, you’d be hard-pressed to find a team left in the Tourney with as much momentum as these kids, who have exhibited impressive resolve in each of the contests from the previous weekend. In their opening meeting with Six Seed Miami (FL), Loyola went toe-to-toe with the ACC Representatives, who despite owning a slim advantage throughout the Second Half simply couldn’t put away their feisty counterparts from the MVC. League Player of the year Clayton Custer (13.3 PTS, 52.7% FG, 46.0% 3FG, 2.2 REB, 4.2 AST, 1.5 STL, 20.0 PER) drilled a Three-Pointer with just under Two Minutes left to play before the Hurricanes took a Two-Point Advantage shortly afterward, setting up the kind of late-game heroics that have become a staple for this competition; Donte Ingram (11.5 PTS, 44.2% FG, 39.6% 3FG, 6.4 REB, 1.6 AST, 1.0 STL, 17.0 PER) pulled and fired a desperate Three-Pointer right in front of the March Madness Logo located at Half-Court, which fell through the net shortly before the final buzzer sounded, granting the underdog Ramblers their fist Tournament Victory Thirty-Four Years. With little time to revel in their triumph, Moser’s charges moved on to face Three Seed Tennessee in what would be yet another dogged contest; in this case, the small Catholic School flipped the script, leading throughout the tie, owning a 29-25 lead at Intermission, and allowing the Volunteers to take the lead just once in the Second Half. When their counterparts from the SEC moved ahead via a Three-Point Play with just Twenty Seconds remaining, Loyola openly courted disaster by allowing the inbound pass to fall about of bounds, though they caught a huge break when the Referees overturned the ruling after consulting Replay. From there, Custer received the inbound, dribbled for a few seconds and let the game-winner fly, with the ball initially bouncing of the rim before calmly falling through the net granting them a pair of walk-off wins in three days. Whereas their defense helped propel them to their previous upset of the Hurricanes, this win over the Vols came courtesy of their aggressiveness on the offensive end of the Court, which they rewarded for with a series of trips tot he Charity Stripe; the Ramblers knocked down 11-of-16 Free-Throws (68.8%) in comparison to a mere 3-of-6 for their opponent (50.0%), which makes all the difference in such a tightly-contested encounter. Custer & Co. will look to keep things rolling against Nevada, whose up-tempo attack is sure to play a perfect foil to their slower, defensive-oriented approach. Loyola dominated the Missouri Valley Conference this season largely on the strength of their Defense, allowing just 62.2 Points per Game, the Fifth-Fewest in the Nation on just 41.6% Shooting (51st Overall).
Meanwhile, in a Tournament full of upsets, don’t be fooled into believing that Loyola is the lone Cinderella worthy of your attention, for Nevada (29-7, 15-3 in Mountain West Conference) have been plenty surprising in their own right. Though they are only a Seven Seed, the Mountain West Conference Champions are hardly a household name, but that could very well change after this weekend. In his third year in charge, Eric Musselman has rebuilt this Program in relatively short order, taking over a team that was a dreadful 9-22 back before he arrived, to three consecutive 24-Plus Win Seasons, including back-to-back trips to the NCAA Tournament, their first since 2007. In fact, at Twenty-Nine Victories, he’s matched the School Record also set back in 2007, while equaling their longest trek through the Tourney since 2004. Dominant throughout the majority of their MWC Schedule, Nevada slipped up a bit before the Tournament, losing twice to San Diego State, once in the Regular Season Finale (74-79) and again in embarrassing fashion in the Conference Tournament (73-90), which no doubt prevented them from earning a higher seed than they were dealt. As a result, they got to face Ten Seed Texas in the Round of 64, a matchup that very nearly ended their run before it could even begin. Trailing 35-26 at Halftime, Musselman’s charges had to rally their way back into the affair, overcoming a 14-Point Deficit to force Overtime, which they would control in route to an 87-83 triumph. Junior Forward Caleb Martin (18.8 PTS, 45.3% FG, 40.1% 3FG, 5.4 REB, 2.6 AST, 1.2 STL, 0.5 BLK, 23.1 PER) was the star, scoring Eighteen Points on 6-of-16 Shooting (37.5%), along with Ten Rebounds, Five Assists, and a Steal, nailing a pair of crucial Three-Pointers in the Extra Period to keep his team’s Tourney Run alive. The Wolfpack shot a blistering 50.8% from the Field, including 61.8% from within the Three-Point Arc, while dishing out a healthy Eighteen Assists in comparison to just Seven Turnovers, as they met little resistance from the Longhorns’ typically stout Defense over the final Twenty-Five Minutes of play; in the First Half they managed just 39.3% Shooting, only to explode on 60.0% Shooting after Intermission. However, that comeback would pale in comparison to the one that they manufactured just two days later, as Nevada toppled Two Seed Cincinnati on Sunday. The Wolfpack rallied back from a Twenty-Two-Point Hole with Eleven Minutes let to play, securing a 75-73 victory which matched the second-largest comeback in NCAA Tournament History. The MWC Champions trailed virtually all night, only leaping ahead of their AAC Counterparts when Josh Hall (6.8 PTS, 50.3% FG, 30.6% 3FG, 3.9 REB, 1.4 AST, 0.6 STL, 0.4 BLK, 13.8 PER) scored off an Offensive Rebound with just Nine Seconds left on the clock. Cody Martin (14.0 PTS, 51.8% FG, 30.6% 3FG, 6.3 REB, 4.7 AST, 1.6 STL, 1.5 BLK, 22.0 PER), along with his twin brother Caleb, were tremendous in the comeback, with the former scoring Twenty-Five Points on 10-of-20 Shooting (50.0%), with Six Rebounds, Seven Assists, and a Steal, while the latter added another Ten Points on 4-of-12 Shooting (33.3%), including a clutch fade-away Three-Pointer from the sideline to tie the score at 73-73 with Fifty-Four Seconds left. For the second straight game, Nevada found a way to torch a strong defensive side, shooting 49.2% from the field, including 55.8% from within the Arc, while dishing out Thirteen Assists in comparison to committing only Two Turnovers. That last figure has played a huge role in their ability to come back from such large deficits; few teams have taken care of the basketball than the Wolfpack, who have committed an average of just 9.6 Turnovers this season, the Sixteenth-Fewest in the Nation, while coughing up the rock on just nine occasions over the last two outings. Normally, we would suggest that they’re going to have to play better in the first twenty if they wish to advance any further, but this team has become quite comfortable when playing from behind, having trailed at the half of each of their past five games.