Loyola's win over Illinois leaves no doubt Ramblers belong in Sweet 16
Cameron Krutwig has gotten a fine education, both at Jacobs High School in Algonquin and at Loyola University Chicago.
So we'll forgive him a minor English usage slip-up in the euphoria of the moment after the Loyola Ramblers upset top-seeded Illinois 71-58 Sunday in the Midwest Regional at Bankers Life Fieldhouse in Indianapolis.
The Ramblers advanced to the Sweet Sixteen of the NCAA Tournament three years after Krutwig helped them to a shocking Final Four run.
"That Final Four run will hold a special place in my heart, obviously," said Krutwig, who led the Ramblers with 19 points Sunday. "But this one feels 'specialer' and sweeter in the moment because I'm here, I'm in the present right now."
Quietly confident but also miffed about being the No. 8 seed entering the tournament, the Ramblers went out and methodically took care of business against an Illinois team many observers felt could win the whole shebang.
Loyola never trailed, nor did the Ramblers panic as they staved off Illini runs at the end of the first half and late in the game.
A 5-0 Illini run at the end of the first half, sparked by big man Kofi Cockburn, cut a 33-19 Loyola lead to 33-24 and appeared to give Illinois the momentum going in the second half.
But the Ramblers kept their cool and built a 39-29 lead on a Krutwig hook.
Cockburn led all scorers with 21 points, 7 on free throws, as Loyola's famously swarming defense kept him at bay. Oddly enough, at the other end of the court, Cockburn looked almost passive as Krutwig enjoyed almost free reign in the lane.
"He's super physical, super big, and it's tough to get around him," Krutwig said. "I don't know. We just ran our stuff. He was kind of letting me get catches. He wasn't really guarding me outside of 3s, so I just took up the slack to him and made some moves -- some moves that I want back, a couple of easy ones I thought should have went in.
"Just a lot of respect. He works so hard to seal you in there. He finishes everything around the rim, lob dunks, stuff like that. It tested me on defense, tested me on offense. He's like a brick wall, going through him and scoring. It was a tough task."
Loyola's other Final Four senior, Lucas Williamson, had 14 points after leading the way in Friday's 71-60 win over Georgia Tech with 21. Marquise Kennedy came off the bench and scored 14 in only 18 minutes.
"I think our guys did a great job," said Ramblers coach Porter Moser, who drew up a near-perfect game plan against the Illini. "We wanted to control the transition defense and their ball-screen offense. Just so much respect for every one of their players. Offensively, we spaced it. We moved it. We needed to have high-assists, low turnovers. We had 16 assists, 11 turnovers. They're fifth in the country defensively, as well.
"The guys were locked in. We're enjoying each other when it's time to enjoy each other, but they were locked in. I thought they did a really good job in transition defense and in ball-screen defense."
Three years ago, the 11th-seeded Ramblers were the sentimental favorites as they knocked off Miami, Tennessee, Nevada and Kansas State to reach the Final Four. They didn't make the NCAA Tournament the following two seasons, but they won at least 20 games in both.
The Cinderella slipper no longer fits, and the Ramblers aren't sneaking up on teams anymore. They're feeling they belong.
"It's definitely a different story," Krutwig said. "We came into this tournament ranked like 17th in the country in the AP poll. We got an 8 seed. That's just the hand we were dealt. We feel like we're one of the best teams in the country. I think we showed that these last two games, definitely with the contrasting styles.
"Georgia Tech pretty much played all zone, trying to force us to make outside shots, whereas Illinois was physical, making us run our man sets and stuff. That's the great thing about us. We can adapt to any style of play, really. You can't not think you're one of the best teams in the country. You've got to think that and you got to play like it.
"We're excited to get to the next one. I've been here before. Lucas has been here before. Aher (Uguak) was a redshirt when we went to the Final Four. We've got some experienced guys. The NCAA Tournament is all about runs. The game of basketball is a game of runs. I thought we answered a lot of their runs."