Loyola (Chicago) finished its regular season Saturday with a 75-72 loss at home to Evansville.
Evansville (13-18, 6-12 MVC) cruised to an 18-point lead in the second half. The Aces were rolling behind their backcourt duo of sophomore D.J. Balentine and freshman Duane Gibson.
Then Evansville let up a bit and Loyola (9-21, 4-14) took complete advantage. The Ramblers cut their deficit to nine points by the 4:07 mark, and suddenly there was a ball game in Rogers Park.
“What got us the lead was how aggressive we was,” Evansville head coach Marty Simmons said. “We got a little overaggressive and didn’t play the clock and score as well as we need to. We got sloppy, we didn’t cut hard enough.”
At first, Gibson had the answers to Loyola’s buckets, and the Aces’ maintained their nine-point lead with 1:17 to go.
“We were packing off in the passing lanes because we were so worried about Balentine,” Loyola head coach Porter Moser said. “Gibson drove in, and he made some mid-range jumpers. We dared him to make them.”
Loyola junior Christian Thomas, who posted 17 points and five rebounds, ignited the crowd with a left-wing 3-pointer. Evansville sophomore Adam Wing missed a layup, and Loyola freshman Milton Doyle drew a foul and made both charity tosses at the other end to cut the lead to 71-67. Doyle scored all of his 13 points and five assists in the second half.
Loyola’s pressure defense forced a turnover, and junior Joe Crisman converted a three-point play. Crisman finished with a team-high 20 points.
With 48 seconds still on the clock, the Ramblers trailed by only one point.
The Ramblers needed one more basket, trailing 75-72 on their final possession. But Thomas’ three-pointer rimmed out. Regardless, Thomas’ shot appeared to come after the buzzer and may have been voided even if it dropped through the net.
“At the end of the day we were fortunate,” Simmons said. “Our guys showed some character and were able to finish it off.”
The duo of Balentine and Gibson tore Loyola apart all game. Balentine led all scorers with 24 points, and he filled the stat sheet with six rebounds and four assists. Gibson finished with 22 points and three dimes. The 22 points were his highest total of MVC play.
Gibson made a few baskets early in the game, and Simmons said those makes boosted the freshman’s confidence.
“You could see it in his face,” Simmons said. “It not only made him more confident shooting. It made him more confident driving the basketball. He’s struggled at times with his confidence. But, man, he looked like a confident player today.”
The Aces start three sophomores and two freshman, and off the bench Saturday they used only one upperclassman. Simmons said he is very encouraged by the success this group could have in coming seasons.
“To see them finish the season here with a couple of wins and continue to improve in practice and want to get better, it pleases all of us,” Simmons said. “They’ve been a resilient group. We’ve had our share of tough luck.”
Both teams move on to the MVC Tournament‘s opening round Thursday in St. Louis. Loyola, the No. 10 seed, will face No. 7 seed Bradley, which swept the Ramblers in the regular season.
The Ramblers enter the tournament with six straight losses and nine defeats in their last 10 games.
“When things aren’t going your way, that’s when you’ve got to play with the most energy,” Loyola head coach Porter Moser said.
Before the Ramblers face the Braves, Evansville will play No. 9 seed Drake. The winner gets No. 1 seed Wichita State, the lone undefeated in college basketball, in Friday’s quarterfinals.
“Every college basketball player plays for the opportunity to play in the Big Dance,” Simmons said. “You’ve got to keep it short-term. You’re ability to stay focused and just get to the next round. We’re excited, like all 10 teams are.”