ATLANTA — A sign in the first few rows of a section filled with Loyola Chicago faithful — and that’s the precise word Ramblers fans use to refer to themselves, with good reason — told the story of the No. 11 seed that continued to defy the odds in the NCAA men’s basketball tournament.
“Mission From God,” it read, quoting from the Chicago-centric comedy classic “The Blues Brothers” and complete with a picture of the most famous member of the Loyola community.
That would be Sister Jean Dolores-Schmidt, the 98-year-old nun and team chaplain who’s sticking around through the weekend after her Ramblers held off a rally to outlast seventh-seeded Nevada, 69-68, on Thursday night in the South Region round of 16 at Philips Arena.
The difference was Marques Townes’s three-pointer with six seconds to play that provided Loyola with a 69-65 margin and stemmed the momentum the Wolf Pack had gathered following a push that erased a double-digit deficit in the second half.
Townes released his three-pointer from in front of the Loyola bench as the shot clock reached one second. The redshirt junior guard finished with a team-high 18 points on 6-for-10 shooting in addition to five assists and four rebounds.
“Like I’ve been saying all year, this team never quits,” said Townes, whose team will face Kansas State in the Elite Eight. “We’re such a resilient team. Nevada, they’re a great team as well, and we respect them, and they fought real hard, and they made that huge run. We got some stops. We made some big shots.”
With the outcome secure and the final seconds ticking off the game clock, Sister Jean appeared from the tunnel in her wheelchair to take her familiar place alongside the Loyola bench. Ramblers fans stood and applauded as players hugged Sister Jean on their way to the locker room.
“I’m happy for us, for my community, for Loyola, for the city of Chicago and for the world,” Sister Jean said outside Loyola’s locker room, “because we have people watching us all over the world. The viewing numbers on every channel should go up over this weekend, and I’m sure that it will.”
Fans and media members alike haven’t been able to get enough of not only Sister Jean but also another personality not on a basketball roster. That would be Mariah Musselman, the 8-year-old daughter of Nevada Coach Eric Musselman.
Before tip-off, CBS aired an interview between Mariah Musselman, an aspiring sports broadcaster, and Sister Jean, both of whom have captivated basketball junkies and non-diehards alike with their charm, wit and cutes to spare.
“We played our hearts out, came up a basket short or a point short,” Eric Musselman said after the Wolf Pack’s season concluded at 29-8 despite forcing 16 turnovers and shooting 48 percent during the second half. “It’s obviously tough for our locker room right now to know our season is over.”
In front by four at halftime, the Ramblers (31-5) made their first 13 shots in the second half to open a 55-45 lead with 10:05 to play. Eleven of those field goals came on layups, with seven players contributing to the perfect shooting stretch.
The first miss occurred when guard Ben Richardson’s desperation heave from well beyond the three-point line landed short, creating a turnover for Nevada, which soon used a 12-2 run to tie it at 59 with 4:06 to play.
A three-pointer from reserve senior forward Aundre Jackson followed to put Loyola ahead to stay with 2:57 left, setting the stage for Townes’s dramatic shot.
“I’m telling you, you’ve got to give so much credit to Nevada,” Ramblers Coach Porter Moser said. “They ever quit. I mean, those guys keep coming.”
Nevada’s path to its second appearance in the regional semifinals comprised a pair of memorable comeback victories. The most recent was overcoming a 22-point deficit in the second half to rally past No. 2 seed Cincinnati, 75-73, in the round of 32 in Nashville for the second-largest comeback in NCAA tournament history.
In the round of 64, the Wolf Pack toppled No. 10 seed Texas, 87-83, in overtime after trailing by 14 points in the second half.
A sequence following the first of those cardiac performances went viral when Eric Musselman, son of late NBA coach Bill Musselman, shouted an expletive picked up inadvertently on broadcast audio.
After the win over Cincinnati, he tore off his dress shirt in exultation of the improbable circumstances that had the Wolf Pack playing for its first berth in the regional finals in program history.
As they have been virtually the entire season, the Martin twins, Caleb and Cody, were front and center in Thursday night’s showdown, combining for 37 points and 11 rebounds.
The 6-foot-7 juniors began their college basketball careers at North Carolina State, playing two seasons for Mark Gottfried before electing to transfer with speculation swirling that playing time would be less abundant given the addition of heralded recruit Maverick Rowan.
“We’ll just remember all the work that we had put in,” Caleb Martin said. “This is something really, really hard to do that people don’t really realize that we’ve been doing with around a six- or seven-people rotation and with a true big and just how much preparation and behind-the-scenes stuff that we go through all the time to get to a place like that and come up short.
“It’s hard, but I’ll remember all the relationships and the work and stuff that we put in and with a lack of depth. It’s been a special year.”