In the first round of the National Invitational Tournament (NIT) March 19, Loyola head coach Porter Moser realized his team wouldn’t be able to make a comeback. With fifteen seconds left, Moser called for a substitution and pulled redshirt seniors Marques Townes and Clayton Custer off the court for the last time in their collegiate careers.
Dylan Boehm hung his head. Isaiah Bujdoso stood up and clapped as the pair stepped off the court. Custer and Townes first hugged Moser, then each other with tears rolling down their faces.
The Loyola men’s basketball team ended its season with an unceremonious 70-61 loss against Creighton University in the first round of the NIT.
One year after a historic run to the Final Four, the Ramblers finished their season earlier than they’d hoped, with a 12-6 record in conference and 20-14 overall. Loyola finished as co-Missouri Valley Conference (MVC) regular-season champions with Drake University, and Townes walked away with the program’s second consecutive Larry Bird MVC Player of the Year award.
With pressure on its shoulders and new players on the bench, Loyola was never able to find the consistency it yearned for. While the Ramblers began their non-conference play hot against University of Missouri-Kansas City, they realized they had a target on their backs when they battled to a loss against Furman University.
“We see it and we definitely feel it,” Moser said after Loyola defeated University of Evansville Feb. 20. “But it’s where we want to be, if you’re getting people’s best shot it means you’re relevant.”
The struggles continued throughout non-conference season with notable losses coming against Boston College, St. Joseph’s University and the Ramblers’ Sweet Sixteen opponent, University of Nevada — a game that also ended with sophomore guard Lucas Williamson in a cast.
The conference season started out strong with solid back-to-back wins against Drake and Indiana State University. Despite Williamson’s return Jan. 8, the Ramblers were steamrolled by Evansville — which finished last in the MVC.
The longest win streak of the season was three games, which Loyola hit twice. But the team could never find the footing to win that fourth game — a fact that would haunt the team as it entered the MVC Tournament in St. Louis.
Despite all the ups and downs they faced in the season, the Ramblers were able to secure the No. 1 seed at Arch Madness. They flew past Valparaiso in the quarterfinal matchup, but their hopes to go to the big dance came to a halt when they lost to Bradley in the semifinal matchup.
“I mean, you work so hard all year,” Custer said after the loss to Bradley. “The goal is to go to the NCAA Tournament, and our last year here, Marques’ last year at Loyola, we got a taste of it last year. We had a goal, and we didn’t reach it, and that hurts a lot.”
Loyola’s season wasn’t over, though. Despite not making it to March Madness, the Ramblers secured an automatic bid to the NIT. They were a No. 7 seed in the tournament and would be playing Creighton — Moser’s alma mater. Naturally, the team set its sights high.
“Truly happy to be continuing on this season in the NIT!” Townes said in a tweet after the NIT selection show. “Another chance to wear this Jersey and play for this University! I’ll see y’all in [Madison Square Garden] in 3 weeks!”
Truly happy to be continuing on this season in the NIT! 🙏 Another chance to wear this Jersey and play for this University! I’ll see y’all in MSG in 3 weeks! #TheLegacyContinues 🎸— Marques Townes (@Marq_Towne5) March 18, 2019
Despite the Ramblers’ confidence, they fell flat and were never able to overcome the Bluejays, thus ending their season for good.
“Unbelievable students, unbelievable men,” Moser said. “Back-to-back conference championships, they’re winners in every facet of life. I know it’s just killing them right now that it’s over. They’re going to hold their head high. What they did as people and impact [on] our university is unprecedented.”
As the lights turned out at the arena, Moser turned his sights toward the offseason, while Townes and Custer wished their college careers goodbye.
Custer walked into the postgame press conference, still dressed in his uniform, while teammate Cameron Krutwig had already changed. He said he wasn’t ready to take off his jersey for the last time.
“I don’t know if it’s really hit me that I’m never going to put this jersey on [again],” Custer said following the loss. “I’ve loved playing here so much and for the coaches to believe in me the way they have, I owe them so much. I’m just so thankful that I was able to play here.”