There wasn’t a single moment in the game that the No. 8-seeded Loyola men’s basketball team (26-4, 16-2), trailed No. 1-seeded University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign. It was tied once, but other than that, the Ramblers dominated the Fighting Illini in a 71-58 upset March 21.
The Ramblers will now advance to the Sweet Sixteen and play the winner of No. 4-seeded Oklahoma State University and No. 12-seeded Oregon State University March 27 or 28.
From the jump, Illinois was trying to push the pace on the typically slower Loyola team. The Ramblers stuck to their game and went on a 9-2 run to start the game.
The first half was marked by Loyola’s eloquence in passing. The Ramblers had 11 of their total 16 assists in the first 20 minutes of play. Senior center Cameron Krutwig had the most with four.
Loyola’s intelligence on the court continued when senior guard Keith Clemons dribbled down on a fast break and stopped, forcing Illinois junior guard Ayo Dosunmu to jump over Clemons in order to not receive a foul. Clemons’ dead stop allowed him the breathing room to make a simple jump shot.
Illinois All-American sophomore center Kofi Cockburn didn’t let Rambler fans get too excited. The 7-foot-tall big man dunked three separate times in the first half rendering the Loyola fans silent. His last dunk with eight seconds left in the first half sent the Fighting Illini into the break down nine points.
“We knew they wanted to push the pace,” Krutwig said. “They’re one of the best teams in transition in the whole country. We wanted to be opportunistic and stuff with running like we always are, but when they couldn’t get out and run and couldn’t find the gaps in transition, maybe that frustrated them a little bit.”
Despite Illinois never holding a lead, the Illini kept it within striking distance. Neither team went on long scoring runs — the longest for both teams was 7-0. The Fighting Illini and Ramblers went shot-for-shot almost the entire game.
Senior guard and Missouri Valley Conference Defensive Player of the Year Lucas Williamson found himself in foul trouble with 12:18 remaining in the game. He had to be subbed out giving sophomore guard Marquise Kennedy a moment to shine.
Kennedy scored eight points in just nine minutes of play in the second half. When Williamson checked back in with 8:00 minutes to go, he went 3-for-3 over a 2:37 period. The Ramblers only hit one other shot in that stretch.
Fans couldn’t get a breath until the final 1:31 when the Ramblers went on a 6-0 run to cement the 71-58 win.
Every single player who stepped on the court for Loyola, except one, scored. Led by Krutwig’s double-double of 19 points and 12 rebounds, Loyola shot 51.0 percent overall and 40.0 percent from beyond the arc. Williamson and Kennedy also scored in double digits with 14 each.
While the Rambler offense was hot, the defense is what earned them the win. Entering the game, Loyola allowed the fewest points per game in the country and held Illinois to 58 points on 44.9 percent shooting. The Fighting Illini typically average 81.3 points per game on 50 percent shooting.
The Ramblers forced 17 turnovers on the Fighting Illini and translated those opportunities into 14 points.
Loyola also held Illinois junior guard Ayo Dosunmu in check. The Associated Press (AP) First Team All-American finished with just nine points — well below his season average of 20.6. The Ramblers also forced Dosunmu into six turnovers.
“We really wanted to control the transition defense and their ball screen offense,” Loyola head coach Porter Moser said following the game. “Offensively we spaced it, we moved it, we needed to have high assists, low turnovers. We had 16 assists, 11 turnovers thanks to their pressure defense. They’re fifth in the country defensively, as well.”
For the Fighting Illini, Cockburn added 21 points and nine rebounds on 7-for-12 shooting. First-year guard Adam Miller gave the Fighting Illini a boost, scoring 10 points and knocking down two of Illinois’ four three-pointers.
First-year guard Andre Curbelo came off the bench to add nine points and seven assists for Illinois.
“First 10 minutes of that game they got us on our heels,” Illinois head coach Brad Underwood said following the game. “We never really recovered. We had stretches, but they just rocked us, and again, we missed some easy opportunities. We’re not going to win many games when Trent is 1-for-10 and Ayo had a tough night.”
But Illinois found itself in foul trouble trying to stop the clock at the end. Loyola was in the bonus and went 15-for-22 from the charity stripe — six coming in the last minute of the game.
Loyola doled out one of Illinois’ seven losses all season in the upset against the Big 10 Tournament champion.
The Ramblers now advance to the Sweet Sixteen and will play the winner No. 4-seeded Oklahoma State University and No. 12-seeded Oregon State University March 27 or 28.