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CHICAGO -- Loyola possesses most of the needed ingredients to compete with Butler and elite mid-majors of the college basketball world.
Shooters, a reliable point guard, size, depth, experience … Loyola has it all, and all of those characteristics showed themselves at times as Loyola fought bucket for bucket with a Gordon Hayward-less-but-still-quality Butler team at the Gentile Center on Wednesday.
But what Loyola still lacks and Butler still has is the ability to close.
For the second consecutive season, the Ramblers let a golden opportunity to put themselves on the national map slip from their grasp against Butler. A year ago, Loyola fell in a heartbreaker 48-47 to the Bulldogs at the Gentile Center, and Butler’s next lose came to Duke in the national championship. On Wednesday, the Ramblers had equally as good of a shot to knock off Butler, but the Bulldogs prevailed again, winning 65-63, to extend their Horizon League unbeaten streak to 21 games.
“It was a fun game for the fans to watch, but a tough one to lose,” Loyola coach Jim Whitesell said. “You got to give Butler credit. They executed down the stretch and really made some timely 3s, which were always tough. I thought our guys kept punching back, but we couldn’t get the lead. That was one of the things that was frustrating.
“We kept hanging around to have a chance. We had a couple times to tie it at the end there. We didn’t get them to go down for us.”
When Loyola senior guard Terrance Hill spoke a few days ago, he stressed the key to Wednesday’s game would be that closing quality. He knew Butler had it. He wasn’t sure if Loyola did yet.
“You got to get it done,” Hill said. “They always do what they have to get it done. They won’t let anyone beat them in the Horizon League. We learned from them to do whatever we have to get a win.”
With the game on the line Wednesday, Hill’s hands were tied as he sat on the bench while Butler put the finishing touches on its victory. Coming into the tonight, Hill had been living a shooter’s dream. He had knocked down 16-of-23 3-pointers and was among the nation’s leaders.
Not far behind was senior teammate Geoff McCammon. McCammon had sunk eight 3-pointers in Loyola’s latest win and was 22 of 45 from the season.
The two guards ranked first and second in 3-point shooting in the conference.
Butler was aware of that and made sure to contain it. Hill and McCammon had someone in their faces wherever they roamed on Wednesday. In the rare occurrence either got an open, Butler coach Brad Stevens didn’t hide his anger on the sidelines and berated his defenders to do a better job.
“We just didn’t fell like Hill or McCammon could become comfortable,” Stevens said. “That was the deal for us. That was going to be our focus and intent. That hasn’t changed in two years. That’s the way we have to guard them.”
The Bulldogs’ mission was accomplished. Hill and McCammon were not their usual selves all night. McCammon’s 3-point misses included one that clanked off the top of the glass and another that air-balled. Hill’s shots weren’t much better. Combined, they shot 3 of 11 from deep and 6 of 19 from the field.
Despite the duo’s struggles, Loyola stayed in the game, thanks to the Ramblers’ unique makeup of having seven players capable of leading them in scoring on a given night. Where Hill and McCammon dropped off, Ben Averkamp, Andy Polka and Jordan Hicks picked up.
With Loyola down eight early in the second half, Averkamp closed the gap to two with a 3-pointer with 10:33 remaing. Butler built the lead back to double digits with 7:50 left, but the Ramblers rallied again, and Hicks pulled Loyola within 63-62 with two free throws with 15 second left.
In the end, though, Butler did what Butler does. It pulled out the win.
“They kept fighting and fighting,” Polka said. “They won in the end.”
Whitesell looked tired after the game. His tied was loosened. His face was still red. He was clearly exhausted from coaching in what was an intense game for everyone involved. Before departing the postgame press conference, Whitesell left one final message.
“Don’t give up on these guys yet,” Whitesell said. “It’s only one loss. You’re going to lose. Everyone’s going to lose this year. I don’t think anyone is going to go undefeated. Take the hit and see if we can come on back Saturday [against Valparaiso] and play with a lot of effort, a lot of enthusiasm and a lot of heart.”