Loyola extinguishes Northern Iowa in front of amped polar vortex crowd

After time expired in Loyola’s game against Northern Iowa on Wednesday night, coach Porter Moser strode to mid-court. Microphone in hand, the eighth-year coach of the Ramblers addressed the student section.

“You guys won the game for us tonight,” Moser said as Loyola students, who packed half of Gentile Arena on a historically cold night, erupted in elation.

The Ramblers (14-8, 7-2 Missouri Valley Conference) had just gutted out a 61-60 victory over the Panthers (9-13, 4-5) that kept them in a comfortable pole position in the MVC and pushed a humbling 35-point loss to Missouri State on Jan. 23 further in the rearview mirror.

Moser said people had told him the gym might be empty for the midweek conference battle. Instead, it proved downright raucous, as undergraduates flooded in despite the polar vortex that blew negative temperatures into the city throughout the day.

The announced crowd of 3,011 was treated to a dramatic comeback victory. UNI led for the bulk of the contest after a hot start from the hosts, but Loyola used a late push to pull ahead and nab their second straight win.

Senior guard Marques Townes (19 points) and sophomore center Cameron Krutwig (22 points, 11 rebounds) starred, and both hit key 3-pointers in the final five minutes.

Townes nailed his trey off a sweet kick out to the perimeter from Krutwig, who had five assists. Krutwig’s, a career first, came out of an inbound play and gave Loyola a 5-point lead with 48 seconds to play. The Ramblers did not relinquish the advantage.

Loyola is searching for a consistent formula without sophomore forward Lucas Williamson, who will miss three to four weeks after receiving surgery on his broken right hand. The squad has had a Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde feel at times, twice losing by 19 or more on the road in league play before bouncing back with blowout wins.

But at home, the Ramblers seem to have a rhythm. They’ve now won their first five home MVC contests. The boisterous crowd that came out for the UNI game, instructed by Sister Jean to “keep warm” in her pregame prayer, is a sign of the program’s rising profile following their Final Four run last winter.

Loyola’s struggles thus far to replicate their consistency of last year might hinge on perimeter shooting. Loyola once again plays stiff defense, and their overall field goal clip on the season (50 percent) is nothing to scoff at. But they’ve not always found the same touch around the perimeter following the graduations of marksmen Donte Ingram and Ben Richardson.

The Ramblers did not entirely dispense with those concerns against UNI, as they hit 6-of-12 from deep. (They only took three 3s in the second half, and Moser said his team looked to get more aggressive offensively after sputtering to 26 first-half points.) But they once again illustrated their ability to win games in multiple ways, which has become somewhat of a team-wide mantra and could serve them well in March.

“It was just all about defense and getting stops,” Krutwig said.

Loyola dug into a second-half deficit as large as 10 by pressuring the Panthers. After shooting 56 percent in the first half, UNI shot 35 percent after the break.

Meanwhile, Krutwig and Townes took over on offense. Loyola ran its offense primarily through the center, who answered the bell not only with his surprise 3 but also repeated tough shots around the rim.

“He was great the last five minutes,” Ben Jacobson, the coach of the Panthers, said of Krutwig. “I thought our guys did a nice job on him. … Late he just made some plays.”

Townes meanwhile added 10 second-half points. And his 3 off the Krutwig dime nearly brought down the house. As he ran back on defense, he shouted toward the crowd.

“They were awesome,” Townes said of the fans after the game. “They were cheering their butts off.”

Unlike Northwestern and DePaul, schools that play away from their main campuses, Loyola’s gym is in the middle of its campus. Moser was adamant that advantage helped make the difference Wednesday.

“It was a great atmosphere for 30 below,” Moser said. “If this was three blocks away we couldn’t have had this crowd. That’s what I love about our nice cozy gym.”

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