Basically, there’s two ways to look at Loyola’s 102-98 loss at Drake on Thursday. One is to commend the Ramblers for nearly pulling off one of the most remarkable comebacks in college basketball. Second is to focus on how the Ramblers needed a miracle just to come close against the worst team in the Valley.
The comeback was unbelievable. Loyola trailed by 20 points inside of five minutes to play and cut the deficit to two possessions by the two-minute mark.
And even after Drake increased its lead back to 9 points with 1:14 left, the Ramblers still did not quit and had a chance to make it a one-possession game down 96-92 with 40 seconds to go.
But the fact remains that Loyola trailed a 10-loss team by 20 points with less than five minutes remaining.
Granted all conference road games are tough, Loyola was a 5-point favorite but looked like it was playing catchup against Drake from the opening minutes. The Bulldogs were carving up the Ramblers defense to score 1.43 points per possession in the first half.
While you can blame foul trouble to leading scorers Aundre Jackson and Milton Doyle, that was only part of the issue. Loyola’s offense was not the problem except for a few short stretches. Doyle is an excellent two-way player, but Jackson is at best an average defender at this point in his career.
Loyola fell behind largely from carelessness. A handful of Jackson’s and Doyle’s fouls were on ill-advised plays. The Ramblers committed lazy turnovers and failed to mark Drake’s lethal shooters Billy Wampler and De’Antae McMurray.
Even during the miracle run in the final minutes, Loyola made some questionable decisions that led to missed opportunities.
When Loyola got a steal down 89-76 with 3:26 left, point guard Clayton Custer opted for a difficult reverse layup that came nowhere close.
With less than two minutes to go, Loyola had the lead down to 91-85 and actually had time to run offense for a good shot. Instead, junior guard Ben Richardson rushed a 3-pointer that would not have been a terrible look had he set his feet. But he was off balance and knew the shot was way off when it left his hand as he immediately crashed the glass.
Still, Loyola had a chance in the final minute down 96-92 with 40 seconds left, but Richardson threw the ball away.
It’s not fair to expect a team to play a perfect five minutes of basketball, and Loyola came somewhat close with a 19-2 run. But if you build a 21-point hole, you better play a perfect five minutes if you want a chance to win. The truth is, the Ramblers would have been in terrific shape if they had shown better shot selection and patience on those few costly possessions.
This isn’t an indictment of Loyola. It’s the first game of the conference season, and there’s a reason they schedule 18 games.
Loyola had lulled performances earlier in the season but survived a few, such as a 75-62 win against Norfolk State. With a little luck, the Ramblers also survived a rough second half at UIC to win in overtime. But in the non-conference finale, a late surge fell short in a 74-70 loss at Toledo. And a similar thing happened Thursday at Drake.
This trend of playing subpar halves particularly on the road is a problem Loyola needs to fix, but regardless the plain result of the Drake loss stings the Ramblers no matter how it happened.
KenPom projects the third through sixth teams in the Valley to be separated by just one game in the final standings. Missouri State is expected to finish 10-8 while Loyola, Northern Iowa and Evansville are pegged at 9-9.
Loyola was in the driver’s seat for a top three finish in the MVC going into conference play, but falling to the team picked to finish last makes their margin for error much thinner moving forward.