Loyola University-Chicago wanted to make history. The Ramblers wanted to continue a run of magic and madness, of crazy, cliff-hanging NCAA Tournament victories that turned them into America’s darling, and their chaplain, 98-year-old Sister Jean Dolores Schmidt, into America’s sweetheart.
The University of Michigan had another plan. The Wolverines unleashed 6-foot-11, 245-pound Moritz “Moe” Wagner, and knocked Cinderella out of the Big Dance, winning, 69-57, Saturday night before a pro-Loyola-Chicago crowd of 68,257 at the Alamodome.
Wagner punished the Ramblers in the paint and made them pay on the perimeter, scoring 24 points, grabbing 15 rebounds, sinking three 3-pointers. His play propelled the Wolverines into Monday night’s championship game against Villanova University, which defeated Kansas University, 95-79.
If not for Wagner’s dominance, Loyola-Chicago might have become the first 11th seed to reach the NCAA championship game. The Ramblers held a 10-point lead, 41-31, six minutes into the second half. But then Wagner ignited a 30-10 Michigan run with two 3-pointers, a layup, a tip-in, and a free throw to turn the game around.
“He’s a special kid,” Michigan Coach John Beilein said. “He’s going to go in that special category.”
It was a special evening for San Antonio. An estimated 93,000 visitors descended on downtown, filled up hotels, jammed restaurants, and threw a fiesta two weeks before the city throws its own.
TBS cameras showed San Antonio landmarks – the River Walk, the Tower of the Americas, the Alamodome – to a television audience of millions. The NCAA issued credentials to 2,204 media members, who produced print, digital, and broadcast stories, along with thousands of photographic images and videos.
The city danced in the spotlight and reveled in publicity it could not afford to buy. From an Alamodome hospitality suite, Mayor Ron Nirenberg spoke confidently about the city’s rising stature as Michigan fans and the school’s pep band celebrated below.
“This makes us the premier destination for major athletic events,” Nirenberg said. “What we have heard over and over is that people want to come back to San Antonio.”
The semifinal games were played against a backdrop of uncertainty and concern, weeks removed from serial bomber terrorism in Austin. In response, approximately 260 law enforcement officials and more than 100 firefighters and paramedics converged on the Alamodome and surrounding area for the Final Four games, March Madness Music Festival, Fan Fest, and other events.
“The footprint of this event is large,” said San Antonio Fire Department Chief Charles Hood. “With recent terrorism events around the country, we had to do extra preparation.”
Hood said he consulted with the fire chief in Orlando, where 49 people were killed and 58 wounded during a 2016 attack on a night club.
“A lot of things we already had in place, they did not,” Hood said. “I am very secure about what we have done in our training and preparation for this event.”
Saturday’s games were completed without incident.
Villanova won the national title two years ago. The Wildcats hope to win again on Monday. Led by Eric Paschall (24 points) and Associated Press Player of the Year Jalen Brunson (18 points), they turned what was expected to be a close game with Kansas – both teams were No. 1 seeds in the tournament – into a rout with a Final Four record 18 3-pointers.
Seven minutes into the game, the Wildcats led 22-4. The Jayhawks never recovered. Villanova held Kansas big man Udoka Azubuike to eight points and five rebounds.
Paschall hit almost every shot he took. He was so on target – he sank 10 of 11 field goal attempts and 4 of 5 three-pointers – he could have swished from the River Walk.
“I can’t believe the job he did,” said Villanova coach Jay Wright, “and he is one of our best shooters.”
There was no last-second drama, no come-from-behind heroics in either game. But the atmosphere was electric, the crowd, sensing – hoping – for another Loyola-Chicago miracle.
The Ramblers won their first NCAA Tournament game on Donte Ingram’s 3-pointer at the buzzer, shocking sixth-seeded Miami. They won their second game on Clayton Custer’s jumper with 3.6 seconds to upset Tennessee, 63-62. In the Sweet Sixteen, Marques Townes drilled a 3-pointer with six seconds left to take down Nevada, 69-68.
Loyola-Chicago dismantled Kansas State in the Elite Eight and arrived in San Antonio on a wave of excitement. They were reminded that no 11th seed had ever won a Final Four game. But the Ramblers dismissed history and set out to make their own.
“I couldn’t be more proud and saddened that this is over with these kids,” said Loyola-Chicago Coach Porter Moser.
Senior guard Ben Richardson echoed the sentiments of his coach. “It hurts right now,” he said. “We’re disappointed. But we’re going to be able to have a lot of pride in the fact we made a name for ourselves and kind of let the whole country know what we’re about.”
Sister Jean, as is her custom, greeted each player at the game with a warm embrace. What did she tell the players?
“Sister Jean said it was a great season,” said senior guard Aundre Jackson. “She was so happy to be on this run with us and said we should keep our heads high and be happy with what we accomplished.”
Despite the pain, the Ramblers had plenty to celebrate. In the weeks leading up to Easter Sunday, they rose from unknown to nationally known. The face of their team wasn’t a player or a coach. It was a nun, a 98-year-old chaplain, swept up in a story the nation would call a miracle.