Loyola championship team has its moment in the sun
NEW ORLEANS – The NAIA national championship men’s basketball team was basking in the sun Thursday afternoon.
It was a long time in coming and hard earned.
The Loyola men’s basketball team was honored in the university’s Peace Quad some 40 hours after it defeated Southern States Athletic Conference rival Talladega 71-56 in the championship game in Kansas City, Mo.
The championship season began with the Wolf Pack displaced to Dallas for two weeks of preseason workouts because Hurricane Ida had ripped off part of the roof of the University Sports Complex and damaged the team’s home-court inside.
“I think that (displacement) made us stronger,” said senior guard/forward Myles Burns, the Most Valuable Player of the National Tournament.
The season ended with the top-seeded Wolf Pack sporting a school-record 37-1 won-lost mark and hoisting the school’s second national championship trophy, joining the 1945 team in the history books.
The victory attracted a noticeable buzz on social media, primarily among students and alumni, but largely was overlooked in the news (“understandably so,” Loyola coach Stacy Hollowell said) because the game was played as a tornado was bringing devastation to parts of Arabi on Tuesday night.
But on Thursday the Wolf Pack were the center of attention as the Loyola Board of Trustees, hundreds of students, the Wolf Pack women’s basketball team, former men’s players, other alumni, students from neighboring Holy Name of Jesus School and several reporters gathered on a spectacular spring afternoon.
Burns called it “support we’ve never gotten before,” then added, “I’ve never been a part of something like this.”
Another senior guard/forward, NAIA National Player of the Year Zach Wrightsil added, “We’ve built something special.”
Loyola women’s basketball coach Kellie Kennedy’s team fell one victory short of joining the men in Kansas City.
“When you do what we do, you understand the difficulty of doing what they did,” Kennedy said. “You cannot have a bad day or a bad night, day after day.”
The Wolf Pack did not have a bad day or night in Kansas City.
In fact a team whose absence of a home-court required practices at 6 a.m., 6 p.m., and other times at numerous facilities around the city was exceptional virtually every day and night all season.
Loyola had a series of late-season games postponed due to COVID and potential make-ups created a stretch of three road games in four days, which included about 700 miles in travel, prior to the conference tournament.
Hollowell, the NAIA National Coach of the Year, said he might not have done the make-ups in previous seasons, but he felt like the rigorous stretch would “imitate the (NAIA) tournament.”
The Wolf Pack won all three games before claiming the conference tournament championship.
They began the postseason with two victories by an average of 34 points. Their four victories in Kansas City came by an average of 13 points, the closest outcome being a seven-point triumph in the quarterfinals.
In the semifinals Loyola faced fellow No. 1 seed Arizona Christian, which had eliminated the Wolf Pack two years ago.
“We owed them revenge,” senior forward Terry Smith Jr. said.
Loyola played what Smith called “one of the best games we’ve ever played” in an 82-70 victory. In the locker room afterward, Smith started crying as he spoke to his teammates about the moment they were experiencing.
He noted “all the trials and tribulations” they had faced, which included the late addition of food poisoning during the tournament on top of Ida and COVID.
At that point Loyola believed nothing was going to prevent the championship they had focused on ever since a disappointing overtime loss in the third round a year earlier.
That loss left a “sour taste in our mouth,” Wrightsil said. “We locked in on a different level this year.”
“We all had a one-track mind,” Smith said, “and we were on the same track.”
The Wolf Pack raced to a 36-21 halftime lead as they sought their fourth victory in as meetings with Talladega this season. The lead shrunk briefly to five points in the second half before Loyola pulled away.
Hollowell said he read about the 1945 team when he was named Loyola head coach in 2014.
“I wanted us to be connected to that in some way,” Hollowell said, “and now we are.”
And now Loyola is the only university in Louisiana to have won two men’s basketball national championships.
“They’re proof that you can be national champions with student-athletes that are students and athletes,” Loyola President Tania Tetlow said, “if they’re men of integrity who put others first.”
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Les East is a nationally renowned freelance journalist. The New Orleans area native’s blog on SportsNOLA.com was named “Best Sports Blog” in 2016 by the Press Club of New Orleans. For 2013 he was named top sports columnist in the United States by the Society of Professional Journalists. He has since become a valued contributor for CCS. The Jesuit High…