Maryland Baltimore County was supposed to be 2018’s Cinderella. Never before had a 16-seed defeated a 1-seed.
And then Loyola Chicago happened.
The Ramblers, an 11-seed from the South region, ripped off four-straight wins over the course of two weekends and grabbed more than one shining moment. They earned a Final Four berth after a 78-62 win over Kansas State on Saturday in Atlanta.
With the win, Loyola becomes the fourth 11-seed to stand among college basketball’s last four standing since the tournament expanded to 64 teams in 1985.
Louisiana State made the Final Four the very next year, then George Mason and Virginia Commonwealth made tournament runs in 2006 and 2011.
That LSU team went 9-9 in its last 18 games of the regular season, but somehow hosted Purdue, a higher seed, in the first round of the tournament. The Tigers shocked the Boilermakers in double overtime, 94-87, then beat Memphis, Georgia Tech and Kentucky, the bracket’s top seed, to earn their Final Four berth.
“We felt we belonged here because we earned our way here,” Coach Dale Brown said after the Tigers lost to Louisville in a national semifinal. “All you had to do was watch to know how we got here. We had by far the toughest route here.”
George Mason earned an at-large bid at 23-7 after losing in the Colonial Athletic Association Tournament semifinals to Hofstra, then went through a gauntlet of college basketball blue bloods to reach the Final Four. The Patriots dispatched 6-seed Michigan State, 3-seed North Carolina, 7-seed Wichita State and top-seeded Connecticut in an 86-84 overtime win.
VCU had to survive five rounds in 2011, the first year the tournament expanded to 68 teams with a “First Four” play-in game. The Rams beat Southern California, then 6-seed Georgetown, 3-seed Purdue, 10-seed Florida State and top-seeded Kansas.
“What we did in ’06 was like [Roger] Bannister breaking the four-minute mile,” then George Mason Coach Jim Larranaga said after VCU’s Elite Eight win. “It broke the barrier and gave mid-major [programs] a clear idea that they could make it to the Final Four. Butler almost beating Duke last year in the championship has given every mid-major program the hope that the national championship can be won by someone not from a big conference — if that team plays extremely well for three weeks.”
Loyola, now 32-5 and riding a 14-game winning streak, may easily have the best resume of all the 11 seeds.
“How much these guys invested, this just didn’t happen to weeks ago,” Coach Porter Moser said in a television interview as his players put on Final Four hats and T-shirts after Saturday’s win.
The Ramblers went 24-5 in the regular season on the way to a Missouri Valley Conference regular season and tournament championship. They beat Florida in Gainesville, Fla., in December. They’ve lost a single game since Jan. 7. The margin of defeat was two points.
“The journey with these guys, it’s an unbelievable group. It’s amazing when you believe,” Moser said. “They have believed and believed and believed and it’s awesome to see. I just want to stare at them celebrating.”
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