Loyola came out of halftime Monday with a fire and toughness that Louisiana-Monroe could not match in game one of the CBI championship. The Ramblers outscored the Warhawks by nine points in the second half in a 65-58 victory in front of 2,215 fans.
“I thought the difference in the game was their toughness,” Louisiana-Monroe coach Keith Richard said of the Ramblers. “They just played with more grit, more physicalness, toughness on the offensive end than we did.”
As has been the case in just about every game this season, Loyola faced a significant height disadvantage. The Ramblers tallest rotation player is 6-foot-7 junior Montel James.
Louisiana-Monroe consistently plays four players that height or taller, including 6-foot-9 Jamaal Samuel and 6-foot-10 Majok Deng.
The size differential gave Loyola some issues early on, and Samuel and Deng were Louisiana-Monroe’s best offensive players all night long, combining for 25 points.
After a hot start gave the Ramblers a 10-5 lead, they went scoreless for more than six minutes, allowing the Warhawks to take control.
Loyola had trouble and had several missed jumpers and turnovers during its scoring drought.
“We were so east-west with their length,” Loyola coach Porter Moser said of his team’s first-half effort. “[Louisiana-Monroe] is one of the longest teams we’ve played. They’re not as thick as Michigan State, but they’re long like that. So that length in the first half, I think it took some time to get adjusted to.”
Being more aggressive and penetrating, as well as taking advantage of transition opportunities, were key points at halftime.
The Ramblers responded to their halftime talk, scoring 24 points in the paint in the second period. They also scored all 8 of their fastbreak points after halftime.
Inside, senior forward Christian Thomas, who stands at only 6-foot-5, muscled his way to 12 points on 6-of-7 shooting and 6 rebounds. James recorded 11 points, two of which came on this monstrous dunk, along with 6 boards.
James’ dunk, plus a free throw on the and-one, gave Loyola a 36-33 lead early in the second half, igniting both the team and the crowd.
“Honestly my mind went blank,” James said of his dunk. “I was just all over the place. I was just real excited about it. I honestly have no words for it because my mind just went blank, and I just erupted.”
The Ramblers lead reached as many as 11 points before the Warhawks cut their deficit back to one possession with 4:33 remaining.
Richard was impressed with Loyola’s production from its bigs.
“Their bigs are not as tall as ours but I thought they did an excellent job really driving our guys, kinda getting them under the rim, getting into them and made some point-blank shots,” Richard said. “That’s what I mean by toughness and physicalness. … We just couldn’t stop them, really and truly, all night long.”
Loyola’s backcourt also came alive in the second half.
Junior Earl Peterson posted a game-high 16 points, including 12 after the break. Sophomore Milton Doyle scored all 6 of his points in the second half.
Louisiana-Monroe locked down on sharpshooter Devon Turk, but the junior guard still finished with 10 points for the night. Turk made a pair of 3-pointers, putting him one behind Blake Schilb for the most treys in Loyola history.
The two teams now head to Monroe for the second game Wednesday of this best-of-three series. A win for the Ramblers would give them the tournament title, while a Warhawks victory would force a rubber match Friday, also in Monroe.
The NBA-like series as opposed to single elimination in all other college basketball tournaments will present some challenges on both sides with the quick turnaround.
“It’s different,” Moser said. “We’ll see what adjustments we can make. I’m sure they’re doing the same thing.”