The conference tournament season is upon us in college basketball, and for every team, winning their conference is the surest path to March Madness. As long as they’ve made their conference tournament, it gives new hope to teams, as they all start out with the same chances to win, from the first-place team on down.
For a Loyola Ramblers team that has fought through more than its fair share of injuries and adversity this season, the fresh start is more than welcome.
“A new season started right after the Evansville game [the last game of the season on March 8],” sophomore guard Becca Smith said. “Everyone’s 0-0 now. We can go as far as we want to in this tournament no matter what’s happened so far.”
Loyola, which has earned the eighth seed in the conference, begins tournament play against Bradley on Thursday, March 13. The Ramblers have played Bradley twice already this year, winning 73-63 on Jan. 19 and losing 54-49 on Feb. 15.
Smith said it’s helpful to start off the tournament against a team they’ve already defeated.
“It’s a confidence booster, to be able to start off against a team that we know how to beat. That’s a huge help,” she said.
Smith added that their earlier win against Bradley is their blueprint for succeeding again.
“We need to rebound well, and we need to push the ball on them in transition,” she said. “As long as we do those things, and win the turnover battle, that’ll be enough to win.”
The Ramblers (10-20, 5-11) have faced challenges this season, losing three starters early on and struggling to get into a rhythm without them. However, the conference tournament provides them one last opportunity to play at a high level that many players, including freshman forward Bailey Farley, believe the team can still achieve.
“We’ve struggled a little bit throughout this season with getting everyone on the same page when we play,” Farley said. “But if we do that and work together, things will go well for us. We have all the pieces to make a run.”
Forward Troy Hambric is one of two seniors on the team whose college career will end with the team’s next loss. But Hambric, a conference Player of the Year candidate, does not believe that loss will come soon.
“We may not have finished the way we wanted to,” Hambric said. “It was a tough season for us. But the tournament is like a blank slate, and everyone goes in on the same level. It’s an opportunity for us.”
Farley said that the “blank slate” gives Loyola a chance to show something to the other teams in its new conference.
“We’ve always had something to prove,” she said. “A lot of people still believe that we don’t belong in this conference. We need to show them that we do.”
Smith added, “It would mean everything to make a statement in this tournament, to prove ourselves and to be able to say, ‘Loyola has arrived.’”
Farley, a freshman, said a run in the conference tournament would really set the tone for the program going forward.
“It would be huge to go into this tournament which no one thought we could win and pull this off. It would set the tone for me personally, for the next three years, and for this new program under a new coach,” she said.
For all the adversity the team has faced, they have kept faith, and they believe they can come home from the tournament in St. Charles, Mo., with a win.
“We have only one goal in this tournament — to win it,” Hambric said. “We have to come out stronger than anyone has ever seen us play, to fight like we’ve never fought before. That’s how we’ll win. We refuse to finish without a fight.”
“We have all the pieces,” Farley said. “We just need to play together and play our hardest.”
They’ve had to go through a lot this year, but Smith says she and her teammates believe they can shock everyone and win the conference.
“We have something to prove; no one expects much out of us. But crazy things happen in March. Why else would they call it March Madness?”