CHICAGO — Porter Moser nearly didn’t make it to the court.
As Loyola-Chicago prepared to celebrate its improbable Final Four by raising a banner Tuesday night at Gentile Arena, the coach who guided the team to San Antonio in March nearly remained in the locker room.
“There was a moment where I wasn’t going to go out,” Moser said. “I was so locked in on moving on and going to the next step. … I’m glad I [went out]. It was great to see how excited everyone was. You could just look around at people’s faces and they took themselves right back to the tournament.
“It was a neat moment for the program. That banner will be there forever.”
Moser fidgeted as he posed in front of the banner with his team, which retained several stars from the Final Four run, including senior guards Clayton Custer and Marques Townes and sophomore center Cameron Krutwig. Then the coaches and players retreated to the locker room, promptly refocused and thumped Missouri-Kansas City 76-45 before a raucous crowd of 3,795, many of whom wore Loyola’s signature maroon-and-gold scarves.
Sister Jean Dolores Schmidt, Loyola’s 99-year-old team chaplain who became an international celebrity during the team’s NCAA tournament run, attended the game and delivered a short speech and the pregame prayer, asking God “to remind the referees to call plays as they see them.”
Back for another season. pic.twitter.com/W9MHXTSK8U
— Loyola Men’s Basketball (@RamblersMBB) November 7, 2018
She told the crowd, “We all want the same thing tonight, so go Ramblers!”
Before Schmidt arrived at the court, Loyola raised its Final Four banner, which joined the team’s 1963 national championship banner and others in the stadium rafters.
“The pregame banner for me was emotional,” Townes said. “Just seeing that banner go up and thinking about last year and what we’ve done to get that banner raised in this arena with all these fans here, the community of Chicago, it meant a lot. I almost started tearing up a little. Me and [Custer] were talking about we wanted to tear up.”
Students started lining up outside the arena several hours before tipoff to witness their team play at home for the first time since February. Loyola won a team-record 32 games last season and earned the school’s first NCAA tournament berth since 1985.
“You’re hoping this thing can become a great atmosphere, to where it becomes a very hard place to play, and today was a start,” Moser said. “I’m greedy. I want sellouts every game. But I thought the students were really noisy. It was everything you want in a student section. It was fun to see the atmosphere.”
While Moser is fully focused on the future, he came away pleased that Loyola reflected traits it had displayed throughout the 2017-18 season. The Ramblers shot 54.7 percent, had 17 assists on 29 field goals, recorded eight steals and held Missouri-Kansas City to just 29.8 percent shooting.
Several Loyola newcomers performed well, as freshman guard Cooper Kaifes led all scorers with 19 points, making his first six field goal attempts, including five 3-pointers, while New Mexico transfer Aher Uguak added eight points. Loyola surged out to a 23-8 lead and had a 40-18 advantage at halftime.
“It’s who we are,” Moser said. “You have this shared vision of what you are. The guys believe that together we can be higher than we are individually. When you’re together defensively, when you’re together offensively, you can go a lot higher than you can individually. It’s at the core of our culture.”
Schmidt, who turned 99 on Aug. 21, told ESPN before the game that the recent months have been “a roller coaster, ever since March Madness.” She places no restrictions on what the Ramblers can do to follow last year’s tournament run.
“They still have that same team spirit,” Schmidt said. “The fellas who were here last year have transmitted that to the new ones.”
While celebrating the history it made last season on Tuesday, Loyola is driven to keep building its program.
“We’re trying to learn how to sustain success,” Townes said. “We watched Alabama football. Coach Moser showed us a video of that and how they sustain success year after year after year after year. We don’t want to be that program that has a down year after winning a championship and going to the Final Four.”