My Final Four Experience as a Rambler

Loyola Chicago is one of five double digit seeds to ever advance to the Final Four of the NCAA Basketball March Madness Tournament.  The other four teams were Syracuse (a proven program), LSU, George Mason, and VCU.  Usually teams that earn double digit seeds in the NCAA tournament are just happy to be apart of the madness, but occasionally, one of these teams makes an improbable run, and reach the sport’s biggest stage: The Final Four.  I have always wondered what it must be like for the fans of these colleges since Penn State can only make it to NIT Final Fours, so I decided to take a trip out to Chi Town this weekend and attend the watch party at Joseph J. Gentile Arena to see it for myself.

When I first arrived at the campus, I came across a student from The Daily Illini, the University of Illinois student news outlet, interviewing students about the run their team has made over the last month.  The same feeling came from all these interviews: these students were just happy to make March Madness, and this run the team has made will be something they will talk about the rest of their lives.  When you win a conference tournament like the Missouri Valley to clinch a March Madness bid, you are looking at a double-digit seed, and hoping for one win against a team that most likely has a more talented squad.  These students got to see the unthinkable happen, and you could tell they were still in shock based on the conversations I had throughout the day.  The other common topic to come up in these interviews was Americas darling, Sister Jean.

The media thrives on running with stories that generate a lot of clicks, and what could generate more clicks than a 98-year-old Nun that is spiritually leading an underdog team to the Final Four, which is played during Easter weekend?  After spending a day on campus, I think they undersold Sister Jean.  All these students talked about was Sister Jean.  All the Final Four shirts had Sister Jean on them.  The loudest cheers in the gym came when they showed their beloved Sister Jean.  I now own two T-Shirts with her face on them, and still do not know how to feel about it.  Too bad when the team was on the verge of losing, she bailed on them when they needed her the most.  Sad.

This appearance by LUC was also a huge deal for the Missouri Valley Conference and the State of Illinois.  Illinois basketball has been terrible to put it nicely for over a decade now, and this gave the state some optimism.  Chris Collins showed some promise by taking Northwestern to the second round in 2017, and now Porter Moser brought LUC to the teams second ever Final Four.  The Missouri Valley conference is benefitting from this, as they are earning more money for the Ramblers appearance in the Final Four than they are receiving from the ESPN college basketball rights deal.

Now, time to recap the game experience…

Joseph J. Gentile Arena holds around 5,000 people, and the atmosphere was electric.  Before the game, the pep squad was leading the crowd through chants, many revolving around Sister Jean, but this energy disappeared once the game started.  The tension could be felt throughout the room for the first couple minutes when Michigan took an early 12-4 lead.  It felt like the crowd was out of it.  The Ramblers got out of their funk right after that timeout and went on a 25-10 run to end the half to take a 29-22 lead at halftime.

The energy in the room was at an all time high, and all the fans around me felt like they had this since the team has been a second-half-team all-tournament long.  The problem was that Michigan played poorly, and that was not going to carry over to the second half.  The key was for the Ramblers to keep their lead for the first four minutes of the second half, which they did.  That is when I started to believe that Loyola Chicago could pull off the improbable upset.  Unfortunately, the Wolverines heated up from the 16-minute mark on.  With 5 minutes left, Michigan Center Mo Wagner converted a put back dunk And-1 to extend their lead to 7.  The silence was deafening.  That is when I knew the game was over.  Although the Ramblers continued to battle, Michigan continued to hit shots in route to their 69-57 victory over the Ramblers.

Throughout the crowd, you saw people of all ages crying after seeing their university’s magical run come to an end.  This is the what makes sports so special.  That is what I love about it the most.  In a world that is divided by all sorts of controversial issues, sports are such an innocent thing that brings random strangers together, no matter what the result of the contest is.  These underdogs were so happy to see their team making this incredible run, but that does not make the defeat any easier.  I made this trip to experience the emotion of the fans, no matter what the result was, and it lived up to the hype.

Congratulations to the Ramblers on this run, it has been a fun journey.

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