Vahe Gregorian

Charmed Loyola-Chicago Ramblers snuff out K-State's memorable season

Kansas State coach Bruce Weber hugs forward Xavier Sneed as the Wildcats check out of the game against Loyola-Chicago Saturday night in Atlanta.
Kansas State coach Bruce Weber hugs forward Xavier Sneed as the Wildcats check out of the game against Loyola-Chicago Saturday night in Atlanta. theying@wichitaeagle.com

Along a fascinating and rousing path to the Elite Eight for just the second time in 30 years, Kansas State encountered all manner of storylines and obstacles.

First up was Creighton and K-State transfer Marcus Foster.

Then came the forever underdogs of the NCAA Tournament, the UMBC Retrievers, the first No. 16 seed ever to advance in the NCAA Tournament.

After that lurked Kentucky, one of a handful of blue-blood programs and owning a distinct talent advantage.

All were tamed by the ninth-seeded Wildcats, whose fierce defense keyed the way without their best player, the injured Dean Wade.

But like a text on that “Confide” app, that signature evaporated upon arrival on Saturday at Philips Arena, where 11th-seeded Loyola-Chicago breezed to a 78-62 win by dissecting K-State with deft ball movement that flipped the script on the Wildcats.

Kansas State head coach Bruce Weber praised Loyola-Chicago for their intensity and said Kansas State just couldn't answer in their Elite Eight exit.

Much will be made of the charming tale of Loyola-Chicago's team chaplain, 98-year-old Sister Jean Dolores Schmidt, and suggestions of divine intervention, and something indeed seemed just meant to be about this.

The problem with that, though, is it doesn’t give enough credit where it’s tangibly due.

To the better team, at least when it counted, to its terrific coaching and the incredible night of Blue Valley Northwest High School product Ben Richardson — who along with fellow BV Northwest grad Clayton Custer was essential in an improbable run perhaps aptly summed up thusly:

In an elevator earlier in the day, Richardson shared with the world on TV and in a postgame news conference, someone had asked to have a picture taken with the team.

Assuming Custer wasn’t a player, this person asked him to take the shot.

“He was polite,” Richardson, who scored a career-high 23 points, said with a laugh. “He was going to take it.”

If he had, chances are it would have worked out fine …

Just like about any shot the Ramblers took on Saturday as they advanced to the Final Four for the first time since winning the 1963 national title.

They made 27 of 47 field goals from every angle, including 17 that came with assists, as Richardson hit six of seven three-pointers.

Kansas State's Xavier Sneed talks about his teams' mentality heading into next year following their Elite Eight loss to Loyola-Chicago in the NCAA Tournament.

Unfazed by the Wildcats, the Ramblers seized a 12-point halftime lead that would balloon to 21 and never get under double-digits in the second half.

Meanwhile, a K-State team that had stifled every other Tournament foe to no more than 59 points and hassled them into a cumulative 53 field goals in 157 attempts, seemed a step behind all game defensively and never found anything resembling a rhythm offensively while missing 43 of its 66 shots and making just six of 26 three-pointers.

“They beat us on a lot of dribble drives. They're very good, very disciplined at shot fakes, getting to the hoop, making the next pass,” K-State coach Bruce Weber said. “Sometimes it's a clinic how they play, and you appreciate that.”

It’s a raw moment to pause and appreciate the broader K-State season, especially when the top four seeds in the South Region were knocked out before the teams gathered in Atlanta and it seemed like such a fertile opportunity for the school’s first Final Four since 1964.

But the night also needs context and perspective.

And while part of that is the bitter swig of truth serum that the better team won, another part is that this was a breakthrough season and a harbinger of better days ahead for K-State under Weber.

Even if no doubt there will be some senseless backlash against him for a loss that was more about a depleted team running out of steam than anything else.

Two years into his tenure four years ago, the Wildcats were meandering at 15-17 amid a cultural makeover.

Barry Brown Jr. talks about Kansas State's heartbreaking loss to Loyola Chicago in the Elite Eight of the NCAA Tournament.

They’ve won more games every year since, making a quantum leap this season after being picked eighth in the 10-team Big 12 before the season. And every key player could be back next year.

“We stick with positive energy,” K-State freshman guard Cartier Diarra said. “Next year starts tomorrow,”

With tears in his eyes, KSU freshman guard Mike McGuirl added, “I mean, it does hurt. But we know that this isn’t the end of it.”

Just the end of one exhilarating run, the sort of thing that now has to be a baseline instead of an outlier.

The bar has been raised on Weber now, of course, but that’s the way it should be after a season that was a tribute to resolve and adaptability.

If they could do all this with a series of injuries throughout the season, why can’t they do more with everyone back?

This game will be the nasty aftertaste, at least for a while.

But the substance and the message and the moment to cling to is in what K-State did against Kentucky — fending off those other Wildcats with Wade out and three other players fouled out and five guards on the floor.

“They found a way,” Weber said. “You know, that just (was) amazing — their resiliency and persistence.”

Until it fizzled out against a better team.

K-State fans saw their Final Four hopes dashed as Loyola rolled over the Wildcats 78-62.

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