Loyola almost fell apart on Saturday, letting a double-digit second-half lead slip to nothing as the turnover bug suddenly bit and shots stopped falling.
In the end, it took six straight made free throws, including a pair from 53 percent free-throw shooter Lucas Williamson, and one final stop at the buzzer to escape. But escape the Ramblers (10-7, 3-1 MVC) did, topping in-state rival Illinois State (9-8, 2-2) 67-64 on a snowy afternoon on the North Side of Chicago.
“Down the stretch, we won it on defense,” said senior guard Marques Townes, who poured in 21 points.
After a pair of Clayton Custer free throws put the Ramblers up by 3, the hosts stiffened defensively on the game’s final possession, forcing Zach Copeland into a contested corner jumper beyond the arc that missed wide and sent an announced Gentile Arena crowd of 4,513 home happy.
“I was pumped that people came back during a snowstorm,” said coach Porter Moser postgame, marveling at his team’s post-Final Four fan support. “It would have looked like a quarantine game four or five years ago.”
Loyola’s offense has come and gone this winter, evaporating in a humbling 67-48 road loss to Evansville on Tuesday. It disappeared again late against the Redbirds: the Ramblers did not score a field goal in the final six minutes of the game. And after avoiding any turnovers before halftime, Loyola coughed up seven in the second frame as Illinois State initiated full-court pressure and a 2-2-1 zone.
“They don’t shoot great,” Illinois State coach Dan Muller said of the Ramblers, who entered the day eighth in the MVC in 3-pointers made. “They don’t have four guys out there that can shoot it like they did last year.”
Loyola finished the afternoon 5-for-16 from downtown but leaned on Townes’ production and an efficient outing from sophomore center Cameron Krutwig (13 points, 5-of-7 shooting). Townes unleashed a number of mid-range jumpers and a pair treys, and freshman guard Cooper Kaifes knocked in two 3s off the bench. Williamson, back for the second game from a broken hand that has eaten into his sophomore campaign, scored 6 but nailed two key free throws.
The sterling play of Townes is a welcome sign for Loyola. A consistent producer who has scored in double figures in all but three games this season, Townes has tended not to explode beyond the mid-teens in points. But he also dropped 28 points in a win at Drake on Jan. 5, and his breakout games have boosted Loyola as it attempts to shake off a rollercoaster nonconference.
“My teammates are finding me,” Townes said, adding that he’s been trying to focus on holding his follow through, emulating Klay Thompson.
Saturday’s game was played at a snail’s pace, with neither team scoring a single fast-break bucket. Loyola’s average possession lasted 21 seconds; Illinois State’s went an average of 18.
That tempo made the Ramblers’ rough scoring patch late more apparent and also made it easy to forget they scored effortlessly before halftime, hitting field goals at a 59 percent clip in the opening half.
Krutwig said the hosts were ready for the Redbirds’ defensive shift but simply got sloppy with the ball.
In the end though, the defense proved key. Loyola won for the first time this season while scoring fewer than 70 points. They entered the day 0-7 when they failed to hit that mark.
Moser predicted there will be no shortage of close games in the Missouri Valley Conference this year. He said Townes said to him after the contest there are “a million ways to win a game.” Loyola located one path against the Redbirds.
“It usually comes down with taking care of the ball, making your free throws and getting defensive stops,” Moser said. “So the takeaway from the game: they found ways to win.”