When Marques Townes’ last-second jump shot hit the rim and fell to the ground, the hearts of Rambler nation fell with it. Loyola wouldn’t return to the NCAA Tournament, just one year after captivating the nation with that Final Four run. While tears were shed on the court, the locker room was even more somber.
I would know. I was the only media member in there.
Townes, redshirt senior guard Clayton Custer and first-year guard Cooper Kaifes all followed head coach Porter Moser to the press conference — and they certainly didn’t look to be in any kind of mood to meet the media. Those three players are the ones most people wanted to talk with since they accounted for 31 of Loyola’s 51 points.
But the players who remained in the room didn’t look like they wanted to talk to anyone, either.
The air was heavy as 10 sweaty college students either sat in the chairs in the middle of the room or on the benches along the wall. The silence was deafening. Nobody said a word. When I mustered up the confidence to ask a couple questions, it felt as though I was whispering.
When I first walked in, I saw Cameron Krutwig, Loyola’s first team All-Missouri Valley Conference center who was held to just six points. He was sitting in the corner, his left leg on the ground and his right leg up on the bench with his ankle on ice after he rolled it during the second half. While he said it wasn’t anything major, he looked defeated as he knew the Bradley defense managed to stifle him.
I looked down the line and saw Aher Uguak, sitting at his locker, shirtless, with his eyes glazed over as he stared at the wall. In his first season of eligibility after transferring from University of New Mexico, he struggled at times on offense, and those struggles carried over to Arch Madness, only scoring two points against Bradley.
Sitting on his right was Lucas Williamson, his hood covering his face as he stared at the ground almost in disbelief. After missing 18 games with a broken hand, Williamson provided a spark for the Rambler the last few games of the season. Despite playing strong defense after halftime, he just couldn’t light enough of a spark on offense.
It felt as though the season had ended then and there. Everyone in the room had a look on their face like they’d just played the last minute of an up-and-down year, failing to live up to heightened expectations set by last year’s magical run.
But the season’s not over. After winning the regular-season title, Loyola secured an automatic bid to the National Invitation Tournament (NIT), meaning they still have basketball left to play.
Krutwig put it best. Although the Ramblers made the NIT, “it’s not what we wanted.”
You could see it on their faces. They wanted to get back to the big dance, silence everyone who said they’d be a “one-hit wonder” and hear their name called on Selection Sunday.
Instead, they got beat by a Bradley team that started conference play 0-5. Bradley coach Brian Wardle said he expected to win the game. Clearly, Loyola didn’t expect to lose — especially in such dramatic fashion.
The Ramblers had their chances as Bradley committed 13 turnovers, but they couldn’t recover from the 10 offensive boards allowed in the second half. It also didn’t help the Braves blocked nine shots, including some that frankly should’ve been called fouls.
They knew they didn’t play well — or, at least, not well enough to win. They didn’t have to speak into a recorder or into a camera to say it.
All I had to do was look at them.