Sister Jean, Ramblers a special team
Sometimes you simply run out of miracles. Unless, of course, you are the Loyola Ramblers. Loyola’s Sister Jean seems to have a mysterious otherworldly power over this NCAA tournament. That’s the only way to explain the Nevada Wolf Pack’s heartbreaking 69-68 loss to Loyola on Thursday in Atlanta. How else can you explain Kendall Stephens missing all eight of his 3-point attempts? How else can you explain the Wolf Pack missing 20-of-27 3-pointers as a team? How else can you explain the Wolf Pack turning a 20-8 lead with 13:36 to play in the first half into a 40-28 deficit with 16:45 to go in the second half? And, still, the Pack lost by just one point. This just might be the most disappointing and painful loss in the history of Wolf Pack sports.
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Stephens, who had a brilliant one-season Wolf Pack career after three seasons at Purdue, just picked the absolute worst time to have his worst game as a member of the Pack. He didn’t score against Loyola and his 0-for-8 showing on threes is the worst performance of his four-year career. The most threes he ever missed in a game without making one before Thursday was six against both Florida and Vanderbilt early in the 2015-16 season when he was with Purdue. The Pack simply could not overcome Stephens not contributing on the offensive end. That was always the danger with this Wolf Pack team since point guard Lindsey Drew went down with a season-ending Achilles’ injury. If one of the main scorers (Caleb and Cody Martin, Stephens and Jordan Caroline) had a bad night, there was a good chance the Pack would lose.
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The Wolf Pack followed the same formula against Loyola that it used to beat Texas and Cincinnati. It’s just that this time Loyola refused to play along. The Pack fell behind Texas 40-26 with 18:42 to play and trailed Cincinnati 65-43 with 11:37 to go. And won both games. The Pack then trailed Loyola 40-28 with 16:45 to go. The difference was that Texas and Cincinnati played dead after building their big leads. Loyola, which never allowed the Pack to take the lead in the second half (it was tied 59-59 with four minutes to go) came back from the dead in time to win the game. The Pack simply did not play well in this tournament other than in spurts. It’s a testament to their never-ending will to win that they lasted into the Sweet 16.
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All things considered, Eric Musselman turned in arguably the best coaching job of anyone in the nation this year, unless Loyola’s Porter Moser goes on to win this tournament. Musselman brought a Wolf Pack team that didn’t have a true center, didn’t have a true point guard, couldn’t rebound or play defense in the paint and had just one reliable bench player to within a basket of going to the Elite Eight.
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Was this the greatest season in Wolf Pack basketball history? Well, with two more points on Thursday it would have been. But the best you can say about this season is that it ties the 2003-04 season as the greatest in school history. The 2003-04 team also went to the Sweet 16 and won the WAC regular season and tournament titles. This year’s team had more dramatic NCAA victories — the win over Cincinnati is, without question, the greatest in school history — but there’s something to be said for whipping an opponent in the NCAA tournament. The 2003-04 team beat Michigan State by six and Gonzaga by 19 before losing to a tough Georgia Tech team by just five.