Loyola guard Marques Townes can barely stand to watch in the waning moments of the Ramblers’ 69-57 loss to Michigan in a national semifinal Saturday night in San Antonio. (Robert Deutsch/USA Today Sports)
Columnist

You knew the warm and fuzzy story of a cold and grimy college basketball season was over when Sister Jean Dolores Schmidt exited early. With 1 minute 39 seconds left in Loyola Chicago’s sobering 69-57 national semifinal loss to Michigan, a security crew wheeled the 98-year-old nun away from her courtside seat and into the tunnel where her Ramblers would soon leave the court and force the men’s NCAA tournament to conclude without its most unexpected and well-timed delight.

The sport, full of transparent corruption currently, did not deserve to have Loyola Chicago disinfect its premier event, but it received this gift anyway. The maligned institution needed it. For the past three weeks, the Ramblers made it okay to be unapologetically overjoyed about a college basketball team, something the unbiased observer couldn’t be sure was possible when this tournament started. It wasn’t just fun. It was uplifting. It was the best of a dirty game, evidence that college basketball has a soul that can be saved.

After the buzzer and the handshake line, the Loyola players walked off the floor to applause. Some players wiped away tears. Some waved to acknowledge the fans. They didn’t look like a team satisfied with getting this far. They knew they belonged. They knew how close they were to playing for the title. When the so-called Cinderella bows out, there’s usually a sense that the team had done all it could. It wasn’t quite like that this time. There was no shame in defeat, but if the Ramblers (32-6) could have kept Michigan off the offensive glass better or made a couple more three-pointers or turned the ball over fewer times down the stretch, they would have won. They were that good.

“When they walked off that floor, the emotions when you invest in something that much, the emotions were overwhelming some of them, and I wanted them to walk off that floor with their heads high because they have a lot to be proud of,” Loyola Coach Porter Moser said. “And I’ll tell you this: When you’re done as a young player, you know it’s not as much what you left behind; it’s what you impacted. And these kids — these young men, they’re not kids — they impacted so many. The name ‘Loyola’ will never be the same. Loyola Chicago — they’ve changed the perception, doing things the right way. They changed a community. They changed, across the country, the alumni, the pride. And that’s hard to do. And to get to this stage, I’m a better person and a better coach for coaching this group.”

For as much as Loyola proved that it was a serious basketball team in addition to a feel-good tale, it didn’t have enough game to last one more round. It built a 10-point lead early in the second half and stayed ahead until seven minutes remained, but then the dream expired. Loyola wouldn’t match its national championship from 55 years ago, when it helped change the sport by embracing true integration. Still, this team will be remembered as one of only four No. 11 seeds to advance to the national semifinal, joining LSU (1986), George Mason (2006) and VCU (2011) in the updated answer to the trivia question “Who are the lowest-seeded teams to make the Final Four?”

We’re still waiting for a double-digit seed to make it to the title game. LSU lost to Louisville, the eventual champion, 88-77. George Mason lost to Florida, the eventual champion, 73-58. VCU lost to Butler, 70-62. The Ramblers must settle for knowing they came closer than any of their peers to advancing.

After falling behind, 12-4, in the game’s first 7½ minutes, Loyola controlled the next 25 minutes of action before succumbing to the size and skill of Michigan forward Moritz Wagner, who finished with 24 points and 15 rebounds, and suffering from a rash of 17 turnovers, including five in a row during a critical second-half stretch.

“We see some really good defenses in the Big Ten, really good,” Michigan Coach John Beilein said in praising a Loyola squad that held his team to 29 percent shooting in the first half. “I would argue it’s the best defensive league in the country. And we saw some great defense [from Loyola].

“They’re a little bit smaller at the forward positions or at some of the positions, and they can really get into you and guard. And they really gave us problems in the first half. They rotated so quickly.”

The Ramblers just didn’t make shots like they normally do. Loyola entered the game making 7.5 three-pointers a game and shooting 40 percent from behind the arc, but it was 1 of 10 from that range at the Alamodome on Saturday night. Michigan wasn’t all that efficient, either. It made just 7 of 28 three-pointers. The Wolverines’ starting guards, Zavier Simpson and Muhammad-Ali Abdur-Rahkman, were a combined 2 of 17 from the field. Simpson was particularly awful, missing all six of his shots and committing four turnovers in a scoreless performance.

The game turned into a defensive slugfest. Once again, Loyola showed its range as a team in being able to play that way, but in the end, it missed its usual shot-making.

“We had an emphasis to try to take care of the ball, but they sped us up,” guard Marques Townes said. “I feel like if we had taken care of the ball a little bit better we could have converted a couple more baskets and stopped the bleeding.”

Now, the Ramblers are left to put their run, which included four tournament victories and a South Region title, into perspective. It might take the rest of their lives to make sense of such a beautiful display.

“People will remember how we did it,” guard Clayton Custer said. “We did everything the right way.”

Said freshman forward Cameron Krutwig: “Mid-major basketball is serious. It is not anything to be joked around with. I think we proved, during this run, that we can play with anyone in the country.”

Forget about the mid-major label. The Loyola Chicago Ramblers, however you want to define them, are no joke. They are a thrill, and they wound up being an essential source of joy to end this dark-cloud hoops season.

For three weeks, they were the antidote to cynicism about the sport’s cheating ways. There’s no trophy for that, but it’s a precious thing. The sport needed the distraction. It needed to feel this kind of hope.

For more by Jerry Brewer, visit washingtonpost.com/brewer.