At the end of a rugged and, at times, vexing Missouri Valley Conference regular season, Loyola wound up right where it was supposed to finish from the start.
At the top.
The Ramblers (19-12, 12-6 MVC) bulldozed their way Saturday night to an 81-68 win over a Bradley (17-14, 9-9) squad that had no answers for sophomore center Cameron Krutwig or hot-shooting senior guard Marques Townes.
Townes finished with 26 points, Krutwig added 16, and Loyola closed its season in style at Gentile Arena, capturing the top seed in the MVC tourney for the second straight year.
“To get this win — it just shows the character of the team to fight through the pressure all year long to do it again,” said coach Porter Moser as a postgame net-cutting ceremony transpired behind him. “It’s so hard to repeat.”
The Ramblers again gained a boost from sophomore guard Lucas Williamson, back in his second game from a hand surgery that sidelined him for the majority of league play. Williamson nailed a pair of early 3’s and made his presence felt on the defensive end as Loyola bolted to a 19-point halftime lead.
“He makes so many plays,” Moser said of Williamson. “Stuff that we talk about in a game plan that an average fan wouldn’t see, Lucas does those plays all the time.”
But Townes stole the show in his final home game. Whether nailing shots from downtown (three 3-pointers) or probing the Braves’ porous defense, Townes spearheaded a Ramblers offense that shot 59 percent from the field.
“We got off to a little bit of a hot start,” Townes said. “Our theme was just to have good possessions. When you have a bad possession, just come back and have a good one. We did that early in the game… I was definitely hype.”
Loyola tied in the final standings with Drake but earned the tiebreaker by knocking off the Bulldogs in both of the squads’ two meetings.
As the Ramblers cruised past Bradley, senior guard Clayton Custer poured in 15 second-half points, adding to the celebratory atmosphere. It was a welcome sight for Loyola; the marksman struggled for much of February, hitting 21 percent from deep in an uncharacteristic month-long slump.
Custer and Townes checked out with 20 seconds left in the game and received a standing ovation as they departed the Gentile Arena court for the final time.
The Ramblers’ ride to first in the conference did not come easily. Loyola stumbled five times on the road in league play, including a 35-point shellacking it received at the hands of Dana Ford’s upstart Missouri State three weeks into January. When the Bears came into Rogers Park and dished the Ramblers another loss Feb. 17, a palpable sense of urgency hung over Loyola.
But like a thoroughbred nosing to the front of the field in the home-stretch, the Ramblers surged this week, sneaking past Northern Iowa on the road by a single point Wednesday before plastering Bradley in the season finale.
Loyola will now head to St. Louis for the conference tournament knowing that it needs to take care of business to lock up a spot in The Dance.
“It’s literally one game at a time,” Moser said. “We’re going to enjoy this today, though.”