The South region of the NCAA Division I men’s basketball tournament continued the theme of upsets. No. 11 seed Loyola University Chicago beat No. 7 seed University of Nevada, Reno 69-68 in a nail-biting Sweet 16 victory on March 22 in Atlanta, Ga., while No. 9 seed Kansas State University defeated the heavily favored No. 5 seed University of Kentucky 61-58. In the South Regional final on March 24, Loyola, the Cinderella team, left the Elite Eight victorious with a 78-62 win against Kansas State to advance to the Final Four.
The Ramblers suffered early in the first half of their Sweet 16 matchup, trailing 12 points by the end of the first 10 minutes.
But Loyola bounced back with a 20-4 run in the second 10 minutes of the first half. A huge contributor to the Ramblers’ run was the aggressive play of senior guard Clayton Custer whose buzzer beater in the previous round eliminated the University of Tennessee in the 32nd round. Custer finished the game with 15 points and four assists on 7-9 shooting. Twin forwards Caleb and Cody Martin led the Nevada effort with 21 and 16 points, respectively.
Custer actually has a special previous connection with Atlanta and Emory. According to an NBC 11 report, Clayton used to visit Atlanta, while his brother, Brandon Custer (07C), was a member of the 2004-07 Emory baseball team.
Both teams played most of the second half neck-and-neck, providing an answer for every attempt at a run.
Loyola refused to back down as their guards’ aggressive play and determination to reach the basket never wavered. Their willingness to pass up shots for better opportunities highlighted their offensive display. The Ramblers demonstrated strong possession tactics, sometimes making more than five passes and using an array of shot fakes for open shot attempts.
Appropriately, junior guard Marques Townes sealed the game for the Ramblers with a three-pointer assisted by Custer. Townes capitalized on a shot fake with six seconds remaining in the game to advance 69-65. Caleb Martin netted a fruitless three-pointer on the other end in garbage time, finishing the game 69-68.
In the second game on March 22, Kansas State defeated the University of Kentucky 61-58 in what was thought to be Kentucky’s opportunity for a Final Four run.
Kansas State came prepared, opening the game on a 13-1 run in the first four minutes of the game.
Kentucky kept the game competitive going into the second half largely through the offensive efforts of freshman guard Shai Gilgeous-Alexander and his ability to draw contact and reach the free-throw line. Alexander scored 10 points from the free-throw line in the first half alone, finishing with 15 points in the game on 11-12 shooting from the charity stripe.
In what turned out to be a physical match, the onslaught of fouls slowed the tempo. Both teams reached the double bonus threshold of 10 team fouls early in each half. Kansas State attempted 22 free throws in the game, converting 14 as a team, while Kentucky shot an astounding 37 free throws, knocking down 23.
However, Kansas State sophomore forward Xavier Sneed’s second half heroics proved too much for Kentucky to handle. Sneed finished the game with 22 points, shooting 5-8 from three-point range.
Kentucky’s loss represented a missed opportunity for one of college basketball’s blue blood programs to make a Final Four run in a region where the top four seeds failed to reach the Sweet 16 for the first time since 2004.
In the South Regional’s final matchup, Loyola punched their ticket to the Final Four through a domineering effort against Kansas State en route to a 78-62 victory.
The Ramblers maintained control of the game with a balanced scoring effort. The team shot an efficient 57 percent from the floor and 50 percent from three. Senior guard Ben Richardson led the team’s offense, finishing the game with 23 points and 6-7 from downtown.
The Ramblers aim to continue the Cinderella run at the Final Four against the University of Michigan in San Antonio, Texas, on March 31 at 6:09 p.m.