ATLANTA — An usher pulled back a heavy black curtain separating a back hallway from the Philips Arena floor, and there she came.
There were three minutes and 18 seconds left in the South Region semifinal between Loyola Chicago and Nevada on Thursday night. The score was tied at 59. After being in command the entire second half, the No. 11 seed Ramblers had lost their grip on the game against yet another determined Nevada comeback.
This was crisis time. Sweaty palms time. Perhaps even say-a-prayer time.
It was Sister Jean time.
The 98-year-old team chaplain for the Ramblers, who has become the sweetheart of this Big Dance, had watched the game in wheelchair seating. But at the 3:18 mark, the last media timeout of the game, she made a quiet but rather dramatic entrance at floor level. Wearing her Loyola letter jacket, she was delicately wheeled in by the corner of the court, and then moved in the proximity of the Loyola bench.
What happened next? Maybe it was coincidence. But given this Loyola run, do you really want to argue that it wasn’t divine inspiration?
With the season on the line and Sister Jean aligned, the Ramblers came out of that timeout and got a 3-point basket from senior Aundre Jackson. Until that moment, he hadn’t hit a three in a month and had only attempted five all March. But when Loyola had to have it, Jackson made it.
Nevada countered with a free throw, and then there was Jackson scoring again, this time on the inside after one of so many deft passes by the Ramblers on the night — this one from fellow senior Ben Richardson. That made it 64-60.
A Nevada 3-pointer kept the pressure on. But Jackson rose up again, making two free throws with 41 seconds left. He went on a seven-point tear once Sister Jean showed up by the bench.
Still, it wasn’t over. Two Nevada free throws made it a one-point game again with 36 seconds left. Wolf Pack coach Eric Musselman made a curious — and ultimately fatal — decision not to foul and extend the game, letting Loyola run the game clock down inside 10 seconds.
That’s when Clayton Custer weaved through the Nevada defense and found another Loyola senior, Marques Townes, for a three from near the Loyola bench — not far from The Sister Herself. It splashed with six seconds left. Ballgame.
It was the third ultra-clutch Loyola jump shot in three NCAA tourney games, by three different players. Donte Ingram won the first-round game against Miami with a 3-pointer from the top of the key. Custer won the second-round game against Tennessee with a contested shot that kissed off the rim in three places before falling. And now Townes had his March Moment.
“I’ll probably remember it for the rest of my life,” Townes said. “I mean, it doesn’t really get any better than that. Clay made a great play, got downhill, kicked me in the corner. The guy came flying at me, I just gave him a little shot fake, and I shot it, and it went in. That’s something you dream about.”
And with that shot, the feel-good story of this feel-bad season continues for at least one more amazing game.
Loyola Chicago, a program that is highly unlikely to show up on an FBI wiretap, is 40 minutes from the Final Four.
Loyola Chicago, 33 years removed from its last NCAA tournament appearance and 55 years removed from its only national championship, is one win away from San Antonio.
Loyola Chicago, a mid-major program that wouldn’t even have received an at-large bid from the exclusionary NCAA selection committee had it lost in the Missouri Valley Conference tournament, is crafting an all-time great March story.
Loyola Chicago, with a total margin of victory in this tournament of four points, is a fourth straight upset away from reaching the stage all college players dream of.
On a mission from God? Hey, why not?
“Wow,” said Loyola coach Porter Moser. “First of all, the glory goes to God for the resilience this group has and for how much he’s blessed our university and how much he’s blessed these guys and blessed me to coach high-character guys.”
Character was tested for a third straight game, as the bi-polar Wolf Pack did what they do — play brilliantly and then play terribly, all in the same game. They are the little girl with the curl in the middle of her forehead — when they’re good, they’re very good, and when they’re bad they are horrid.
Nevada trailed almost the entire game before rallying to win its first-round game against Texas in overtime. It trailed for all but the final nine seconds in the second round against Cincinnati, rallying from 22 points down with 11 minutes to play. In this game, Nevada roared out to an early 12-point lead, then fell behind by 12 in the second half, as Loyola ran a layup clinic on the Wolf Pack, beating them down the floor repeatedly for two-on-one fast breaks.
But then Nevada rallied one last time this season, to forge that tie at 59.
But unlike Texas and Cincinnati, Loyola would not buckle. A veteran team loaded with players that won state high school championships found a way to win this one, too, delighting its scarf-clad faithful in Philips Arena.
Among those cheering on Loyola were several members of that ’63 national title team, a pioneering group that is loving every minute of this improbable program renaissance.
“These guys fit like a glove fits,” said Jerry Harkness, the star of that Loyola team. “They care about each other, they hit the open man, they just care about winning. I truly like them.
“They’re fundamentally sound. They don’t make many mistakes, and so they stay in the games. And at the end, these guys are so clutch.”
The Ramblers will be an underdog Saturday against Kansas State. Again. But if you think that will deter them, you haven’t been paying attention. At no point in this postseason pressure cooker has Loyola panicked; and at no point has it been satisfied just to be in the Big Dance.
“We’re hungry,” Moser said. “We’re greedy. We want more.”
They’ll play for more Saturday. And the nation will clamor for more of Sister Jean, the smiling, wrinkled face of March Madness.
She’s become such a big deal that Loyola has assigned two athletic department staffers to assist her with media requests. Earlier this week she did “Good Morning America,” an NBC show, National Public Radio, a pair of ESPN shows and a local Chicago TV hit Tuesday, part of a whirlwind day chronicled by The New York Times.
She’s had to manage her time well to keep up with being both a sudden star and a long-standing extension of the Loyola coaching staff. Sister Jean is not just there to be eye candy.
She emails the team a scouting report of every opponent, and she also emails players after games with a personal note of congratulations or encouragement. And Thursday night, with the season hanging in the balance, her arrival at courtside came just in time to coincide with — or cause? — the late Loyola flurry that extends this heavenly story at least one more game.
More Sweet 16 coverage from Yahoo Sports:
• Loyola’s Cinderella run continues with dramatic win over Nevada
• Did Loyola get away with a travel on crucial play?
• Michigan looks unbeatable as it advances to Elite 8
• Sister Jean: ‘I don’t care that you broke my bracket’