INDIANAPOLIS — Sister Jean’s roadshow has been extended.
Loyola-Chicago, and its 101-year-old team chaplain, are headed for the Sweet 16 after stunning top-seeded Illinois 71-58, which had been a trendy pick to reach the title game if not win the whole NCAA men’s tournament. It’s yet another remarkable achievement for the mid-major, which reached the Final Four as an 11 seed three years ago, and could be an omen of sorts. Back in 1963, when the Ramblers won the school’s only national title, they beat Illinois in the NCAA tournament, too.
For Illinois and the Big Ten, it’s yet another shocking loss. The Big Ten sent nine teams to the tournament, including No. 1 seeds Illinois and Michigan, and is down to just five before the first weekend is over.
Loyola was the darling of the tournament in 2018, an old-school team built on defense and solid fundamentals with a then-99-year-old nun for a “mascot.” Though only two players are left from that Final Four team, Cameron Krutwig and Lucas Williamson, this team has many of the same characteristics. And it still has Sister Jean, who is calling in all the favors she can.
Fully vaccinated, she badgered Loyola and NCAA officials about coming to Indianapolis until they finally relented. (She did have to promise not to rush the court.) In her pre-game prayer Sunday, she asked “for special help to overcome this team and get a great win. We hope to score early and make our opponents nervous.”
The Ramblers clearly got the message, starting quick and burying Illinois in a hole that was simply too deep to ever climb out of. Kofi Cockburn managed to cut Illinois’ deficit to single digits at the half, converting a three-point play and scoring on a thunderous dunk to make it 33-24, and Illinois was within 42-36 after an Ayo Dosunmu 3 with 13:12 left to play. But the gap was too large, and Loyola is simply too disciplined, for Illinois to get any closer.
Loyola will play the winner of Oregon State-Oklahoma State in the Sweet 16 next weekend.
The deck is inherently stacked against mid-majors in the NCAA tournament – most teams have to win their conference tournaments just to get a bid, and then they’re up against Power 5 schools – but Loyola thought it got a particularly bad draw. The Ramblers have won eight in a row now, and 19 of their past 20, and are as sound a team as you can find. Yes, their No. 8 seed is three better than they were for their Final Four run but, in some ways, this road was harder.
Loyola drew Georgia Tech in the opening round and then had to face Illinois. Even Sister Jean grumbled at that, saying “nobody thinks it’s a fair bracket.”
When even a nun is throwing shade, you might be doing things wrong.
As it turns out, it was Illinois that got the raw deal on the bracket.
Loyola isn’t flashy – remember, the star of this group is a centenarian nun – but it doesn’t need to be. It plays lockdown defense – Illinois’ 24 points in the first half were a season low – and works its offense to simple perfection.
Follow Nancy Armour on Twitter @nrarmour