After a historic NCAA Tournament Final Four run last year, the Loyola men’s basketball team has been knocked out of the Missouri Valley Conference (MVC) Tournament — meaning the Ramblers won’t return to the big dance.
It was an emotional ending for Loyola as the Ramblers were upset by No. 5 seed Bradley University 53-51 in the semifinals of the MVC Tournament — and they saw their chances of an NCAA Tournament appearance disappear when redshirt junior Marques Townes’ last-second shot bounce off the front of the rim. The Ramblers walked off the court with tears in their eyes and heads bowed.
“They should have no regrets on how hard they worked, how hard they led,” Loyola head coach Porter Moser said after the game. “They fought through so much with an injury … with everything they went through this year to win a Valley championship.”
The game was close from the beginning. Both teams defense’s came out strong — the first points weren’t even scored until two and a half minutes into the game. Bradley head coach Brian Wardle said his game plan was heavily focused on shutting down Loyola redshirt senior guard Marques Townes and sophomore center Cameron Krutwig.
“At the end of the game, I thought we did a great job of switching ball screens on [Townes] and trying to take Krutwig’s dives away but have hands on him at all time,” Wardle said. “Every time he drove right, we wanted to load and flood to the ball and contest weak shots as best we could.”
Townes, who averaged 15.9 points per game and 5.1 rebounds per game, was held to just three points and two boards. But he said his performance isn’t the only reason they lost the game. Bradley grabbed 13 offensive rebounds and blocked nine shots, which were crucial in such a close game.
“It wasn’t if I was making shots or not,” Townes said. “It was just our defense, our rebounding and our transition was what lost us the game. It wasn’t my points that won us the game last game, or if it would have won us the game today. It was our defense last game that won the game, and our defense and our transition wasn’t there today.”
Moser was forced to utilize first-year center Franklin Agunanne over Krutwig because of a rolled ankle and how well the Braves were slowing him down. The first team All-MVC center was held to just six points — a stark contrast to his usual 15 points per game.
“We didn’t want him to back down, give him three, four dribbles because we knew he could hurt us if he had time and enough space,” Wardle said. “We played team defense. We had great help defense. I think guys came over and rotated.”
After being guided by veteran players all season, Loyola had to rely on first-year Cooper Kaifes to create some offensive momentum. He totaled 14 points on 4-of-5 shooting.
It was his shot that brought the game to a one-point difference with 1:47 seconds left, but despite his performance, Kaifes said he was still upset about the loss.
“I come into every game knowing that I’m going to have to make shots in order for us to win,” Kaifes said. “[Custer] and [Townes] always find me. They drive it and I get to the open spots, and they’re able to find me. They’re always on me about shooting more and everything. Just sucks that we couldn’t pull this one out.
Despite getting a bid to the National Invitational Tournament by winning the MVC regular-season title, redshirt senior guard Clayton Custer said it wasn’t enough because the team fell short of its top goal: make it back to the big dance.
“I mean, you work so hard all year,” Custer said. “The goal is to go to the NCAA Tournament, and our last year here, [Townes’] 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.”
For the first time since 2006, the Braves will advance to the MVC championship game March 10 at 1 p.m. They will play the winner of tonight’s second semifinal matchup between No. 2 seed Drake University and No. 6 seed University of Northern Iowa.