Loyola men’s basketball defeated University of Illinois at Chicago (UIC) over the weekend, winning the “Battle of Chicago” 69-60. The game was particularly special for the Ramblers because at halftime, Loyola commemorated the 1963 Ramblers, the only basketball team in Illinois to ever win an NCAA Division I title.
Before the game started, the Ramblers received some bad news, learning shortly before tip-off that both senior captain Ben Averkamp and junior point guard Cully Payne would sit out. Averkamp has been sidelined since Feb. 4, when he suffered a concussion in a loss against Wright State. He was hoping to return to action versus UIC and had been cleared for practice in the week leading up to the game, but began suffering headaches the morning before game time. Payne missed his first game of the season after suffering an injury to his left hand during a Feb. 12 loss to Milwaukee.
Without two of their starters, the Ramblers seemed poised to endure a struggle against the Flames, but with the return of sophomore guard Joe Crisman and a career day from sophomore guard Christian Thomas, the Ramblers led this game beginning to end.
Both teams started off the game cold; the Ramblers only scored two of their first 14 shots, but strong defense kept the Flames from taking control. After the win, senior Jordan Hicks talked about how important strong defense is to the Ramblers’ game plan.
“I think our defense for 35-plus minutes of the game really kept us in it. We just remained focused on that side of the court. Our offense is going to come, which it did. We started off slow, but we played good on defense, and they started off slow as well, but I feel like they broke on defense before us,” Hicks said.
The Ramblers would soon find their offensive rhythm, going on a 21-7 run punctuated by back-to-back three-pointers from Hicks and freshman forward Nick Osborne. During the first half, the Loyola defense held the Flames to 36 percent field goal accuracy to lead by 13, with 36-23 going into the half.
Halftime was a celebration for Rambler fans, as six members of the 1963 NCAA Championship team took the court at Gentile Arena. As well as winning a championship, the 1963 team broke a number of racial barriers in college athletics. The team was the first to start four black players and participated in the “Game of Change” versus Mississippi State in the second round of the NCAA tournament (see LoyolaPhoenix.com for coverage).
The 1963 team elected their former center Les Hunter to speak on their behalf. Hunter addressed the crowd in a short speech, thanking them for coming to the game and for honoring the accomplishment they achieved 50 years ago. Hunter even joked that if the 1963 team were to play the 2013 team they would probably lose by 12 points, mainly because they are all more than 70 years old.
The championship game between the Ramblers and the Cincinnati Bearcats has gone down in history as one of the most exciting in NCAA history. The Bearcats were two-time defending champions and were expected to easily beat the Ramblers. Loyola was down by as many as 15 points in the game and battled back to make it a two-point game. The teamwork of John Egan, Jerry Harkness, Vic Rouse and the rest of the Loyola team were somehow able to not only tie the game, but eventually win it in the last minute of regulation.
After his team’s victory over UIC, Hicks talked about what having the 1963 team at the game meant to this year’s Ramblers.
“They’re talking to you as basketball players and it’s really great. To be able to speak to them about that aspect of things and hear the stories about what they faced makes us really appreciate what they went through and definitely gets me going for the game,” Hicks said.
After the halftime celebration, the Ramblers returned to the court to complete their victory over their cross-town rival. The Flames were not extinguished easily, however, opening the half by going on a 23-11 scoring run to close the Ramblers’ lead to six points halfway through the second half. But led by Thomas’ fifth double-double of the season (23 points, 11 rebounds), the Ramblers once again took control of the game. This was Thomas’ eleventh straight game scoring in the double digits, and his 23 points was a career high for the sophomore guard. Hicks added another 18 points for the Ramblers en route to a 69-60 final score.
After the game, Head Coach Porter Moser talked about the leadership he saw from his team in their first victory since Jan. 31.
“They were more focused on who was playing than who wasn’t. And that’s what we talked about when we got everybody together … it’s about you doing your job.”
The victory improved the Ramblers’ record to 14-12 and 4-9 in the Horizon League. The 14 victories from the season doubles the team’s total wins from a year ago. Moser attributes this to his team’s strong determination and will to win. He also attributes at least two victories to the attendance of the 1963 champions and plans for them to help the Ramblers as they head into the final stretch run of the season.
“Well, they’re going to have to come back every game. ‘Cause the Mississippi State game and this game we won, that whole team will be mandated to be back.”
By Brigitte Sheerin