ST. LOUIS — Each Loyola player had shed his jersey and tossed it into a pile in the middle of the locker room, except for Jeff White. White, a 6-foot-1 guard, sat in the locker room with tears in his eyes, staring at his No. 23 maroon and gold uniform spread alone on the floor in front of him.
White and Loyola’s three other seniors had just played their final collegiate game, a 66-58 loss to top-seeded Wichita State in the MVC Tournament quarterfinals. The Ramblers erased a 12-point deficit and grabbed a 52-45 lead with 5:49 remaining, but Wichita State senior Ron Baker carried the Shockers all the way back to avoid a stunning upset.
Loyola senior Earl Peterson walked off the court with a sweat towel over his head. Coach Porter Moser followed right behind and yanked the towel off. Moser then clapped and got the crowd seated near the locker room tunnel to give the 6-foot-3 guard a final ovation.
“Two or three of them had towels over their heads. They had no reason to have their head under a towel,” Moser said. “They need to put their head up. They’re classy student-athletes.”
This senior class helped change the culture of the Loyola men’s basketball program. The Ramblers had not reached the postseason since 1985 until last year’s team won the CBI championship.
Peterson was the CBI finals MVP. Guard Devon Turk became the school’s all-time leader in made 3-pointers that season and continued to make defenses pay from deep as a senior.
This season, Loyola started 0-5 in conference play after a preseason filled with high expectations. The Ramblers then went 8-6 in their next 14 games before falling a few possessions short of a MVC Tournament semifinal berth for the second consecutive year.
Moser has credited all of his seniors for igniting the turnaround. White and Turk became the team’s vocal leaders while forward Montel James played the best basketball of his life down the stretch, earning a All-MVC Second Team selection.
“You’re going to have a lot of adversity in life; it’s how you handle that,” Moser said. “These guys had a choice. They had a choice to pack it in, and they kept fighting. We were walking through some things [before the Wichita State game] in the ballroom, what we wanted to do. They were just hanging on every word, and they gave you everything they had today.”
On Friday, Loyola faced adversity once more as they trailed the heavily favored Shockers, 27-15, in front of an arena filled with Wichita State fans. The seniors recovered and helped carry the team to what nearly became one of the biggest upsets this conference tournament has ever seen.
Turk led the team with 16 points. Peterson had 10 points and three assists. James struggled offensively but had four rebounds and two blocks.
Along with big contributions from junior guard Milton Doyle and sophomores Donte Ingram and Ben Richardson, the senior class got national attention on Twitter as they handed the Shockers punch after punch for the first 16 minutes of the second half.
Then Wichita State made championship-level plays and escaped Loyola’s grasp, leaving the Ramblers with their jerseys piled up on the floor of a silent locker room.
The players, and particularly the seniors, were upset. How could they not be?
Coming close does not matter when you are fighting for your final chance at a NCAA Tournament berth in a win-or-go-home situation.
“All the work you put in during the offseason and in season, and we didn’t get the outcome we wanted,” Turk said. “It’s tough.”
James showed positivity about the team’s effort Friday, but the permanence of the defeat hit him hard.
“It’s the end of another chapter in my life,” he said.
Moser was upset, too. But the 47-year-old with 10 years of experience in the Missouri Valley as a player and coach recognized that competing at the level Loyola did is commendable, even if it’s not the ultimate goal.
So he yanked the towels off his seniors’ heads.
“You get in this world of athletics, you spend almost more time [with your players], unfortunately, than your family,” Moser said. “Those young men, you watch them grow over the years, and you just — you know it’s your last opportunity there. It’s not the last opportunity we’re going to be friends, but it’s the last opportunity we’ll go to compete on a basketball floor with those guys. We’re going to be lifelong friends, those seniors and myself. … They competed on a great stage against a great team, and I wanted to tell them to keep their head up as you walk off the floor.”