The Loyola-Chicago Ramblers are the most excruciating kind of Cinderella to watch—and they're doing it in the most lovable way. They never go away. They never pull away, either. They break the hearts of those cheering for the favorites. They provide exciting finishes, whether you like it or not.
And they are everything right with March Madness.
For the second straight game, Loyola took out a power-conference team in exciting, agonizing fashion. Behind 62-61—the same score they trailed by two days earlier against Miami before sealing it in the waning moments—the 11th-seeded Ramblers sunk the game-winning bucket with 3.6 seconds to play.
Clayton Custer drove right, stopped, popped and watched his shot bounce off the rim, tap the backboard, roll around the iron and drop through to give Loyola a 63-62 victory over No. 3 Tennessee on Saturday in Dallas.
"To get that bounce on that shot, it makes all those, all those hours in the gym worth it," Custer said on TNT after the victory. "I cannot believe that that just happened."
A day after the Virginia Cavaliers became the first No. 1 seed to lose to a No. 16 seed in NCAA men's tournament history, Loyola continued its Cinderella run with a similar philosophy—one that has sparked questions about its winning aptitude from fans and analysts alike.
Unlike UVA, however, the Ramblers are adored.
That's for a wonderful reason, no question. March Madness is remembered for its underdog stories, and Loyola would be writing the most fascinating tale had UMBC not dethroned Virginia. Should the Retrievers lose to Kansas State in the second round Sunday, Loyola will quickly absorb the college basketball world's full attention.
However, it's not because the Ramblers are glamorous. They entered Saturday's showdown ranking 222nd nationally with 72.2 points per game and 256th in total three-point attempts. They had the 37th-slowest tempo in the country, per KenPom.com.
Loyola simply drains opponents. The roster is fundamentally sound, thrives on offensive efficiency and sturdy defense and doesn't rely on a superstar—at least other than 98-year-old superfan, team chaplain and advance scout Sister Jean.
They've captured the attention of many from around the sports world, including MLB.com's Scott Merkin:
Custer holds the squad together, and Loyola (30-5) might be 33-2 had he not missed five games this season. Still, his 13.4-point average only narrowly edges a quartet of double-digit scorers.
Donte Ingram, Marques Townes, Aundre Jackson and Cameron Krutwig all contribute between 10.5 and 11.7 points per game. Any of those players—as well as Ben Richardson and Lucas Williamson—can provide a significant impact.
Saturday, they all did.
Jackson scored a team-high 16, and Custer added 10 and the game-winning shot. The remaining five tallied six, seven or eight points while making a difference through fundamentals.
It's Townes grabbing an offensive rebound after a free throw, which led to two points for Jackson. It's a perfect post feed for an easy bucket. It's whipping the ball over the top of defenders for a wide-open layup or making the extra pass for an uncontested jumper.
That's exemplified in one simple video. Tennessee didn't communicate when a post player hedged a screen on the perimeter, and a lack of communication when he recovered to the post resulted in an easy three-pointer for Williamson.
The Ramblers don't obliterate box scores often, but they shred efficiency categories. Porter Moser's team shot 40 percent from beyond the arc and 50 percent overall against Tennessee, which is nothing out of the ordinary.
Heading into the second round, Loyola ranked sixth nationally with a 57.8 effective field-goal percentage—a statistic that accounts for the fact a three-pointer is worth more than a bucket from inside the arc.
But the methodical, efficient scoring attack only matters if the defense excels. And just like Virginia, the Ramblers deploy a menacing pack-line defense. That unit ranks 28th, according to KenPom, and forced Tennessee to attempt 25 of its 55 total shots from outside.
Because of the slow tempo, droughts on the either end can seem prolonged. When it holds an opponent without a bucket for three minutes, that's impressive. But the limited number of possessions can prevent Loyola from building an insurmountable lead—or an opponent from doing the same.
The Ramblers now have 12 single-digit margins of victory this season, including 10 in 20 wins since conference play began. Three of their four losses in this stretch were by five points or fewer.
Win or lose, Loyola is likely to provide a tight finish.
And one night after a comparable style led to the biggest meltdown in NCAA history, it helped Sister Jean-sparked Loyola reach the Sweet 16 for the first time in 33 years and garner praise all over the sport.
The name on the uniform makes all the difference.