ST. LOUIS — Since Loyola took over the conference lead in the middle of the Missouri Valley season, coach Porter Moser has scoffed at the idea of the Ramblers being a targeted team.
There’s no doubt the Ramblers have been wearing a bull’s-eye, but Moser didn’t want his players thinking of themselves as being chased. They were going on an unending journey, the way Moser told it.
“All the questions I was getting were about, ‘What’s it feel like now (that) everyone's chasing you?’ And I just was like, we're chasing,’ ” Moser said. “We don't have any championship banners in the Missouri Valley. We don't have anything. Being in first place in the middle of (the season) wasn’t what our finish line was.”
He told the players their new motto: “No finish line.”
Loyola’s run reached the MVC tournament championship game after Saturday’s 62-54 semifinal victory over Bradley at Scottrade Center. The Ramblers will face Illinois State — which defeated Southern Illinois 76-68 in overtime in the second semifinal — in Sunday’s title game with a trip to the NCAA tournament on the line.
No matter how the Ramblers want to define it, it would be a rare milestone for the program. The Ramblers haven’t played in the NCAA tournament since 1985’s Sweet 16 team.
“We don't feel like (Sunday) is going to be the last game for us or the game after that,” said forward Donte Ingram, who scored eight points with a team-high eight rebounds. “If we do what we need to do, we can play and beat anybody.”
Loyola (27-5) has won nine straight games since losing Jan. 31 at Bradley. Sunday’s game will be the first conference tournament title game for the Ramblers since 2002, when they played in the Horizon League.
The fifth-seeded Braves (20-13), who trailed by 14 points near the end of the first half, never let up. But Loyola always seemed to answer with a big 3-pointer.
None was as vital as Marques Townes’ bomb with 1 minute, 25 seconds left that put the Ramblers ahead 59-54 after neither team had scored for more than three minutes with Loyola clinging to a two-point lead.
“I just had an open look,” said Townes, who scored 12 points. “It felt good. I was confident in my shot. I was 0-for-4 last game, but the coaches said just keep shooting.”
The Ramblers emerged from the final media timeout holding up four fingers, reminding themselves to lock down defensively for the last few minutes.
The Braves pulled within 54-53 on a layup by Nate Kennell (12 points) with 6:42 to go. Loyola held them to one point after that as Bradley missed its last seven shots.
Ramblers point guard and MVC player of the year Clayton Custer returned to form with 12 points and four assists after he hurt his ankle in the quarterfinal win over Northern Iowa and shot a combined 2-of-17 in the previous two games.
“I love our guys’ mentality,” Moser said. “They just refused to quit. You look at how many grind-out games we've had, especially the last several weeks. We just find ways to win. Different guys, different nights.”