The New York Post: Cinderella Loyola is the talk of the town in San Antonio — and a win away from NCAA title game

Loyola players, holding aloft the regional championship trophy last weekend, were the first team from the Chicago Jesuit university to even appear in the NCAA men’s basketball tournament since the mid-1980s.

SAN ANTONIO — When Loyola Chicago arrived in San Antonio, the team was greeted with a parade. The Ramblers have been followed by a band. Everywhere they go, they are asked for autographs and to pose for photos.

Midnight has yet to strike on this Cinderella run. The 11th-seed is the story of this Final Four, the first true mid-major in five years to reach college basketball’s trademark event, just the fourth double-digit seed to get this far.

“Nothing is normal about this,” redshirt junior guard Marques Townes said Friday as Loyola prepared to face No. 3 Michigan on Saturday night in the national semifinals. “We are really enjoying the time and the moment.

“To have a chance to win a national championship, for any player that plays the game of basketball or has love for the sport or passion for the sport, that’s something you dream about.”

The story is so farfetched Hollywood would have turned it down. The head coach, Porter Moser, had failed to reach the NCAA Tournament in 12 previous seasons with three different programs. The mid-major school hadn’t played in the Big Dance since 1985. The members of the starting backcourt — Clayton Custer and Ben Richardson — are childhood friends and high school teammates. It took last-second shots to get through the tournament’s first weekend. And the star of the stunning Final Four run is a nun, 98-year-old Sister Jean Dolores Schmidt, who prays for victories before each game with the team, and has become so popular, she had her own media availability Friday.

“I know we’re having a ball,” Richardson said. “We’re sharing the joy from this run.”

But don’t mistake that for Loyola (32-5) being happy to be here. The Ramblers, winners of 14 straight games, don’t see themselves as an underdog story. They won 32 games for a reason. They defeated Florida in non-conference play. Of their five losses, three came without Custer, the star point guard. After each upset this month they celebrated, but somehow were better for the next game. Their best performance came in the regional final, when the balanced and disciplined group dominated ninth-seeded Kansas State in a 16-point victory.

“Coach has been preaching there’s a balance between having fun and focusing,” freshman center Cameron Krutwig said. “We’re here to play a game and we’re here to win.”

“I feel like this team really has no limit. I feel like we haven’t played our best basketball yet,” said Townes, an Edison, N.J., native. “After these games, we still have a lot of things we can get better at. Coach has all these ‘Get Better’ tapes. We see them and we think, ‘Wow, we still can be a lot better.’ ”

They will need to at least play as well as they have to get by Michigan (32-7), a five-point favorite. The Wolverines will be Loyola’s stiffest test yet, the highest seed the Ramblers have faced, more well-rounded, balanced and better defensively than No. 4 Tennessee, No. 5 Miami, No. 7 Nevada and Kansas State.

Also in the New York Post: Michigan embraces the villain role against Loyola

Like Loyola, Michigan enters Saturday riding a long winning streak (13 in a row), led by a coach (John Beilein) who can make adjustments on the fly and has already drawn up a game-winning, last-second shot (Jordan Poole’s buzzer-beater over Houston in the second round). Loyola hasn’t faced anyone like junior forward Mo Wagner, a projected first-round draft pick who shoots 39.6 percent from 3-point range and can create off the dribble.

“They have an offense we really haven’t seen before,” Townes said. “In the [Missouri] Valley [Conference], you don’t see stretch fives.”

Of course, nobody expected Loyola to still be playing basketball at this point. The season was supposed to be over, the dream long extinguished. But the Ramblers are still alive, somehow just two wins away cutting down the Alamodome nets. And they have the belief their run will continue.

“We know if we play the way we can play,” sixth man Aundre Jackson said, “we’re going to win.”

Cinderella is happy to still be at the dance. But it doesn’t feel fortunate. It is certain it belongs, and it has the bravado to prove it.

“When we’re on top of our game, we can compete with anyone, and we’ve shown that,” Krutwig said. “We have a lot further to go.”

This report previously appeared at NYPost.com.

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