ATLANTA — Almost like a vision from Heaven, Sister Jean Dolores-Schmidt appeared through the tunnel at Philips Arena to take her familiar place along side the Loyola Chicago bench.
The Ramblers men’s basketball team was putting the finishing touches on a 69-68 win against Nevada on Thursday night in a South Region semifinal, and the most famous member of the Loyola community wasn’t about to miss the celebration.
After the final whistle, players on their way to the locker room hugged the 98-year-old nun, who also serves as team chaplain and honorary assistant coach, scouting upcoming opponents and comparing notes with Loyola Coach Porter Moser.
The next assignment for Sister Jean, in a wheelchair from a fall in November, will be scouting Kansas State, which surprised Kentucky in the night’s second regional semifinal.
“I’m so grateful to the young men and to Porter of course for doing this. I’m trying to keep myself calm, but I know that I’m not,” she said outside the Loyola locker room, recounting an interaction with Ramblers guard Clayton Custer. “One of the things Custer said to me as he came off the court was, “Sister Jean, we broke your bracket.’
“I said, ‘I don’t care how far you break my bracket. As long as you’ve broken it, you have to go a little more now.’”
Sister Jean actually did fill out several brackets, one with Cinderella picks, most notably Loyola going to the round of 16. But as a basketball aficionado for most of her life — she played at San Francisco from 1933 through ’37 — and team chaplain for 24 years, Sister Jean also assembled a bracket with more chalk.
The Ramblers, meantime, have busted countless brackets in their odds-defying foray through the NCAA tournament. They have won three games by a combined four points, including getting Custer’s jumper from the right elbow with 3.6 seconds left to beat No. 3 seed Tennessee, 63-62, in the round of 32 in Dallas.
Two days earlier, Loyola bounced sixth-seeded Miami, 64-62, thanks to Donte Ingram’s three-pointer with three-tenths of a second to play, for the Ramblers’ first NCAA tournament victory in 33 years.
In its first appearance in the regional semifinals since 1985, Loyola got a game-high 18 points from redshirt junior guard Marques Townes, including a three-pointer with seven seconds left for a 69-65 lead that all but sealed the outcome. Townes’s clutch basket came with one second left on the shot clock and right in front of the Ramblers’ jubilant bench.
Loyola held on despite a furious rally in which the Wolf Pack erased a 12-point second-half deficit to tie the game at 59 with 4:06 to play. Reserve guard Aundre Jackson’s three-pointer followed to put the Ramblers ahead to stay and set up Townes’s clinching three-pointer.
No one was more pleased taking in the last moments of Loyola’s 13th consecutive triumph than Sister Jean, wearing a Loyola letterman’s jacket and a maroon and yellow scarf, the same accessory worn by hundreds of other Ramblers fans sitting in the stands.
“This is really my first NCAA appearance at a real game,” Sister Jean said. “I’ve watched on television for years before all you guys were born, and I’ve watched, but never have I attended one before, and I’ve loved every second. It’s been such a great trip for me.”
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