For the second time in four seasons, the Loyola men’s basketball team (24-4, 16-2) won the Missouri Valley Conference (MVC) regular season and tournament. This year, the Ramblers punched their ticket to the NCAA Tournament with a 75-65 win over Drake University in the MVC Tournament championship March 7.
Loyola was led by senior center Cameron Krutwig, who finished with 20 points to go along with eight rebounds and four assists. Redshirt sophomore guard Braden Norris also chipped in 20 points for Loyola, while senior guard Keith Clemons added 13 points.
Despite the game seeming close — the lead changed and tied three times — the Ramblers led for a total of 34:03. Loyola’s largest lead of 17 points didn’t come until the second half with 9:27 left.
The Ramblers led for the majority of the first half. Clemons picked up a technical foul after he knocked down a three-pointer in front of Drake’s bench and proceeded to stare down the Bulldogs.
Drake sophomore guard Joseph Yesufu sank the pair of free throws awarded to the Bulldogs from the technical foul, but Loyola responded by rattling off a 6-0 run in the span of just 33 seconds. This offensive burst gave the Ramblers their first double-digit lead of the game, up 24-14 with 9:05 left in the first half.
The Bulldogs immediately responded with a 10-0 run to tie the game at 24 before Loyola weathered the storm to take a 36-31 lead into halftime. Yesufu led all scorers with 10 first-half points. Meanwhile, Krutwig, Norris and Clemons each had eight points in the first half for Loyola.
“It was definitely punch, counterpunch,” Krutwig said. “There was never any panic in us. … In the huddle it was always positive.”
MVC Defensive Player of the Year Lucas Williamson was scoreless in his five first-half minutes after getting into foul trouble early in the game. Williamson didn’t score until 3:48 into the second half.
Drake redshirt senior forward Tremell Murphy made the first shot of the second half to cut the Bulldogs’ deficit to just three points, but that was as close as Drake would get to Loyola after halftime. The Ramblers led for the entirety of the second half, stretching their lead to 56-39 with 9:27 left to play. But Drake went on a 9-0 run — with Murphy contributing six of those points — to make it an eight-point game with 7:26 to go.
Following a scramble for a loose ball and getting tied up with Norris, Yesufu was given a technical foul with 7:16 remaining. Norris went 1-for-2 on the technical free throws.
Williamson scored a layup and was fouled with 4:17 left to play. He sank the free throw to put Loyola ahead by double digits once again, up 62-50.
Drake managed to get as close as 71-65 with 28.1 seconds remaining, but the Bulldogs weren’t able to take the lead.
Murphy finished with 20 points — including 12 coming in the second half. After a strong first half, Loyola held Yesufu to two points on 1-for-8 shooting in the final 20 minutes.
“They’re terrific defensively,” Drake head coach Darian Devries said. “They make everything hard. … They’re really connected as a group too so there’s not a lot that you can pick on.”
Bench players for Loyola contributed 10 points, redshirt senior guard Tate Hall chipped in the most with four. Meanwhile, Drake had two players come off the bench, but neither of them scored.
“We have a handful of plays that we are inundating our players with constantly,” Moser said. “That play when Tate Hall dove on the ground for that loose ball, that’ll be in every tape I show my players for years to come.”
Hall had a diving play to grab a 50-50 ball. In the process of grabbing the ball, he knocked two Drake players over and passed the ball to Clemons who scored on the fast break.
Loyola saw some of its most effective shooting in the March 7 win. Three players scored in double digits on 59 percent shooting. From three-point range the Ramblers shot 58 percent, with 30 points coming from downtown. Norris chipped in the most three-point shots going 5-for-9 throughout the game.
Last season, the Ramblers were knocked out of the MVC tournament in the quarterfinals. Loyola struggled from the free throw line all season. This season, the Ramblers free throw percentage improved immensely and in the championship game they were 86 percent effective from the charity stripe.
“We really just refocused,” Krutwig said of Loyola’s prior quarterfinal elimination. “Coach [Moser] has been big on us just trying to not forget. … Keep telling the story so you can change the story.”
Krutwig was named the MVC Tournament Most Outstanding Player. Norris joined Krutwig on the All-Tournament Team. Murphy and Yesufu both made the All-Tournament Team for the Bulldogs. Missouri State senior forward Gaige Prim was the fifth and final player to make the team.
With the win, Loyola earned the MVC’s automatic bid into the NCAA Tournament. Loyola won’t know its opponent or seed in the tournament until the Selection Sunday show March 14 on CBS.
“At the end of the day you’re playing basketball,” Williamson said. “We’re gonna approach it with the same mentality. … We’re going in trying to win games.”
The Ramblers’ seed and opponent for the NCAA Tournament is scheduled to be announced March 14 at 5 p.m. on CBS.