Loyola men’s basketball head coach Porter Moser pinned his team’s season-ending loss to Valparaiso University on one thing: free throws.
“It’s been our Achilles heel all year,” Moser said in a somber postgame press conference. “If it wasn’t tonight, it was going to be one of these other two nights [of the tournament].”
The Ramblers (21-11) — who led by as much as 18 points in the second half — saw their season come to an abrupt ending with a 74-73 loss to Valparaiso in overtime of the quarterfinal round of the Missouri Valley Conference (MVC) men’s basketball tournament.
The upset comes shortly after No. 1-seeded University of Northern Iowa fell to No. 8-seeded Drake University, marking the first time in tournament history the top two seeds have been eliminated in the quarterfinals. It’s also the second time a No. 2 seed has failed to make the semifinals.
Loyola struggled from the free throw line all season, ranking 10th in the MVC in free throw percentage by a wide margin. This season, Loyola knocked down 65.6 percent of its free throws, while ninth place Drake University connected on 70.6 percent.
The Ramblers ended up going 14-for-27 from the stripe at Arch Madness — a 51.9 percent clip. Their 13 missed free throws tied a season-high. Redshirt junior forward Aher Uguak missed his first four free throw attempts of the game and finished just 3-for-9 from the line.
“We’ve been skating on thin ice for many, many games with this free throw shooting,” Moser said. “Tonight, it caught us.”
Valparaiso managed to score 10 points in possessions directly following a Loyola missed free throw.
Loyola led 36-22 at halftime and stretched the lead to 18 points with 15:44 remaining in the second half. Valparaiso caught fire late in the second half, going on an 11-2 run in the final 2:50 of regulation to force overtime despite never leading in the second half.
In overtime, the Crusaders outscored the Ramblers 6-5. Valparaiso won on a layup by Eron Gordon with three seconds remaining. The Ramblers missed their final nine field goal attempts in overtime after first-year guard Marquise Kennedy hit a jumper to start the period.
Junior guard Keith Clemons led Loyola with a career-high 28 points on 9-for-15 shooting. No other Rambler scored in double figures, but junior center Cameron Krutwig finished with nine points and 11 rebounds.
The Ramblers held Javon Freeman-Liberty — who earned All-MVC First Team honors — to just six points on 2-for-10 shooting. Freeman-Liberty fouled out with 3:52 left in overtime.
“He’s obviously a little bit under the weather,” Valparaiso head coach Matt Lottich said. “He looks like a young man that hasn’t practiced.”
This was the third meeting between Loyola and Valparaiso, with the Ramblers winning the first two games by a combined five points. Lottich said he focused on limiting the Crusaders’ turnovers and not allowing Loyola to run in transition.
“I think when you do play teams as much and you play them for a third time, there’s some familiarity of really how they’re trying to attack you,” Lottich said. “I thought we put in some wrinkles. We tried to take them off their rhythm. They’re a great rhythm team.”
Valparaiso advances to the semifinals where it will face the winner of No. 3-seed Indiana State University and No. 6-seed Missouri State University. Tip-off is set for 5 p.m. on CBS Sports Network.