Loyola has been living on the edge in February despite a strong 3-1 record with an average victory margin of four points in its three wins. Most recently, the Ramblers traveled to Peoria to face the Bradley Braves and nearly let a 11-point second-half lead slip away in a 58-53 victory.
“Being able to take a punch, that’s where I was proud of these guys,” coach Porter Moser said after the game on Loyola radio.
Loyola (16-10, 6-8 MVC) led 32-22 at halftime and 43-32 with 10:18 remaining after a tip-in by freshman forward Julius Rajala. Rajala, a raw product from Finland, put together the best performance of his young career, including an emphatic, two-handed flush in the first half.
Bradley (8-19, 3-11) made several pushes in the second half, as it has done many times this season. The Braves chipped away at the foul line to make it 45-38, and then Loyola guard Devon Turk, one of the Valley’s deadliest shooters, drilled a 3-pointer to bump the lead back to double figures.
A ferocious dunk by Bradley junior Warren Jones, who returned for the first time since his arrest Jan. 29, brought Braves fans to their feet with their team trailing 50-47 at the 4:07 mark.
Once again, Turk had the big response from deep.
However, three straight defensive stops for the Braves led to a 6-0 run that tied the game in the final minute.
Moser called the number of junior guard Earl Peterson, who has been Loyola’s best shot creator since star guard Milton Doyle went down with an ankle injury last month.
Peterson finished with just 5 points, but his final two were huge, coming on a contested layup that gave Loyola a 55-53 edge with 13 seconds left.
“Earl didn’t have a particularly good game, but we put the back right back in his hand,” Moser said. “He turned that corner and made a hell of a shot on that screen and roll up top.”
The Ramblers forced a miss on the Braves’ final possession to come away with a win.
Thanks to a loss by Drake on Saturday, Loyola now sits alone as the MVC’s 6th place team. The Ramblers looked like a possible top-three team in the Valley early in the season, but losing Doyle sent the team spiraling into a losing streak. Suddenly, they were facing a possible dreaded play-in round appearance at the MVC Tournament in a few weeks.
But this recent hot stretch has the team seemingly back on the track.
“With this group, the only thing we can write up is that we’re gonna grind and play hard,” Moser said. “The way we’re writing it up is that we’re playing our tails off and we’re believing.”
Loyola returns home Wednesday to face No. 11/13 Northern Iowa, which leads the MVC with a 13-1 league record.
Other notes and nuggets from Loyola’s victory:
—Moser promised senior forward Christian Thomas would eventually return to his usual self after going through a funk recently. Thomas’ scoring and field-goal percentage had been way down ever since the team’s home loss to Evansville Jan. 21. Suffering a concussion Jan. 31 against Illinois State did not help his cause.
Thomas returned to form Sunday, leading the Ramblers with 13 points on 4-of-7 shooting. However, Thomas, historically a fairly reliable foul shooter despite unusual form, made just 5-of-10 at the stripe. He is now 7-of-17 (41.2 percent) there in his last three games.
“We did what we did with Keke, put [Thomas] on the scout team, let him get a bunch of shots up,” Moser said of Thomas. Moser was referring to how a move to the scout team for junior guard Jeff “Keke” White led to improved play for him as well.
—This is Loyola’s second year in the MVC, and with Sunday’s victory the Ramblers have won back-to-back Valley games for their first time as members. Even dating back to their Horizon League days, these are the Ramblers first back-to-back conference wins since February 2011.
—In case you’re wondering, the last time Loyola won three straight games was earlier during that 2010-11 season, from Jan. 15 to Jan. 27 to be exact. The Ramblers’ chances of winning three in a row this time are slim, with one of the nation’s top teams coming to town Wednesday night.
Kenpom.com gives Loyola a 19 percent chance of beating Northern Iowa.