It was a nail-biter. After two last-second shots brought them to the Sweet 16 for the first time in 33 years, fans of Loyola Chicago will cheer for their Ramblers somewhere the team hasn’t been since its historic national championship in 1963: the Elite Eight.
A few hours before the game, those fans gathered at a pep rally at the Hyatt Regency Hotel a short drive from Philips Arena where they would ultimately emerge victorious. Current students, recent graduates and alumni who were students themselves during Loyola’s first and only NCAA men’s basketball championship gathered in anticipation for the team to arrive.
For one of those alumni, TerryAnn Weber, Loyola basketball is a family affair. Her father was a referee at Loyola and her husband worked as a gym manager, checking tickets at the door in exchange for a full-ride scholarship. Her son surprised her with tickets to the game for her 50th birthday — her first Loyola basketball game in more than a decade.
“It’s kind of indescribable because it’s such a throwback to what it used to be,” Weber said. “It’s really great.”
Much like Weber, father and daughter Johnathan and Ellie Trewyn have made Loyola basketball a tradition. They’ve been going to games since Ellie was a freshman — two years before anyone thought the Ramblers would make the NCAA tournament.
“I’ve sat through so many empty games in an empty arena,” Ellie said. “It’s been so exciting —they deserve all the credit they’ve been getting lately.”
Johnathan remembers buying second-row tickets the day of a game during Ellie’s freshman year. This year, he said, that section was completely sold out.
Dana Sheedy, a 2013 graduate who was a cheerleader during her tenure at Loyola, spent her time as a student watching Loyola’s athletic programs start from scratch.
“When I was at Loyola, we watched the rebuilding years, so it’s nice to be on the other side and see what we made while we were there,” Sheedy said.
Sheedy said she was inspired to finally see the once-struggling team on the national stage.
With their team finally on that stage in Atlanta, fans buzzed with anticipation as they awaited tipoff. Most said they thought the Ramblers — affectionately called the “’blers” — would come out on top, but that confidence began to wane early in the first half as the Nevada Wolf Pack started to pull away.
When Nevada led by 12 points midway through the first half, many in Loyola’s sold-out 700-seat section stood muted. But, the Ramblers quickly found their footing, pushing back to a 28-24 lead at halftime. After a tense second half in which Loyola gained and lost its own 12-point lead, the Wolf Pack managed to tie it with a minute left.
But as Loyola did in both of their previous games, the team managed to pull it out at the end when redshirt junior Marques Townes buried a three to ultimately end the game. The Rambler fans exploded.
“I’m exhausted, exhilarated and so proud of my team,” said 2015 graduate Bianca Mecoli. “I’m so excited, I’m close to bawling because I just can’t believe we made it.”
For Mecoli, like many Loyola fans, Loyola basketball means more than watching her favorite team win a close game.
“My friends and I here went to Loyola together. We lived in the dorm together freshman year, we studied abroad at the Rome center together and it’s so amazing to cheer for a team you’ve loved this long,” Mecoli said.
For David Kupiec, an attorney who watched the Ramblers reach the Sweet 16 during his junior year in 1985, this victory is proof that Loyola can perform with the best teams in the nation. He attributes much of the team’s success to coach Porter Moser.
“[When I was] in school, we didn’t even have a stadium, so we had to go different places to play,” Kupiec said. “This is completely different. Sure, over the last 15 or so years the crowds haven’t been that great, but ever since Porter got here, you’ve seen a gradual increase year-by-year.”
Kupiec, said he simply couldn’t believe his team got this far — a sentiment so many Loyola fans expressed. Having seen two different Loyola men’s basketball teams compete in March Madness, he said there’s no question which year’s team is the best.
“This is ten times better,” Kupiec said. “It really is. The way the team, the school and Porter have embraced it … all the other teams that are left are really good teams, but I think we’ve earned the right to be here.”