After difficult December, Loyola explodes in Missouri Valley opener

A momentous 2018 calendar year for Loyola ended with a thud. Three December losses in six outings left the Ramblers one game over .500 and with scant signs this winter could develop into an encore of last year’s spellbinding run.

On Wednesday night, Loyola showed there’s still reason to believe. On the second night of the new year, the Ramblers tipped off their conference slate by thrashing Indiana State 79-44 at Gentile Arena, the most lopsided conference victory for the school since it joined the league in 2013.

“We felt like we were just ready to break out,” coach Porter Moser said. “We’ve been talking about: In this league, you’ve got to defend and rebound…(But) we can’t get too high off this.”

The hosts’ sluggish offense, which twice finished with 42 points or fewer in the past month, seemed revived, zipping past that total in the first half alone, with cunning pick-and-roll play, sharp shooting and fast-break jams sprinkled in.

Four Ramblers finished in double digit scoring, and Loyola shot 56 percent from the field. Aher Uguak led the way with 19 points on 8-for-8 from the field. Sophomore center Cameron Krutwig kicked in 16 points and 10 rebounds.

“Tonight the shots just fell for us,” Krutwig said. “We were just moving the ball and playing really well.”

Meanwhile, the Ramblers defense suffocated the Sycamores. Indiana State had nine turnovers and six made buckets at the break, and dynamite Sycamores guard Jordan Barnes went scoreless. The visitors did not manage a point in the final 7:47 before halftime. (Barnes did not appear in the second half.) The second half went better for Indiana State but not well enough to keep it from its lowest scoring output of the season.

It was the type of performance many might have expected when Loyola entered the season a few votes shy of a top-25 ranking. And it came against a respectable Indiana State team that entered the day sitting at No. 131 in Kenpom.

Loyola hadn’t looked anything like the class of the MVC so far this year, let alone like the squad that won 32 games during the 2017-18 campaign. Nonetheless, Wednesday’s win granted the Ramblers a pair of distinctions they failed to muster last winter; they fell in their conference opener last season (at Missouri State) and also lost their home meeting with Indiana State.

The squad is still without injured sophomore guard Lucas Williamson, a two-way ace who has a broken hand. But Uguak’s performance was a welcome sign for the team. The sophomore, who described his season to this point as “up and down,” showed a previously seldom seen touch from the perimeter (2-for-2 from 3) and was active defensively (three steals). Moser said Uguak has been working hard in practice, and came back in the best shape of anyone on the team after Christmas.

The MVC race looks wide open. Drake posted 11 nonconference wins, the most of any school in the league, but dropped its MVC opener to struggling Evansville while Loyola mopped up Indiana State.

After the eruption against the Sycamores, Loyola looks plenty ready for another run at a conference title. Moser said he texted his team after its 45-42 loss to St. Joe’s before Christmas and told them it had a week to get better.

“We got back to some fundamentals this last week,” Moser said reflecting on his team’s offensive showing. “We do want to run. We think we can get some offense running. (Tonight) we were just smarter taking care of the ball.”

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