ALBANY, N.Y. -- So what if Loyola was 2-25 last year?
So what if the Greyhounds entered the Metro Atlantic Athletic Conference tournament with a fifth seed and a six-year winless drought in the postseason?
So what if Manhattan, the MAAC defending champion, put Loyola in a 16-point hole in the first half of the championship game?
So what if Loyola played the final 1:21 without Tracy Bergan, its senior point guard and MVP?
The rest of the MAAC could line up all the obstacles it wanted, and nothing was going to stop Loyola. The Greyhounds beat Manhattan, 80-75, last night in the conference's championship game before 6,461 at the Knickerbocker Arena and a national television audience.
The title and the NCAA tournament bid that goes with it are the first for Loyola since the school moved to Division I in 1981-82.
"The goal all year was to become the best team in Loyola history," said first-year coach Skip Prosser, who went to seven NCAA tournaments as an assistant at Xavier. "We never talked about the NCAAs, but now that we're going, I'm really happy for the kids and the school."
It was the third upset posted by the Greyhounds in as many days.
On Saturday, the Greyhounds (17-12) scored their first postseason win since 1987, beating fourth-seeded St. Peter's. In Sunday's semifinals, they whipped top-seeded Canisius. The challenge was even greater last night, because Manhattan (19-10) handled Loyola in both of their regular-season meetings.
"I went around to every players' room last night [Sunday]," Prosser said. "I told them we got more rest than Manhattan, because they played in the second semifinal, and I told them, 'You've got to go to sleep believing you can win.' They did."
The Greyhounds fell behind by 16 in the first half, but needed only three minutes to take the lead with an 18-0 run. Manhattan still led 65-60 with 6:47 to go, but the Greyhounds went on an 11-2 run, with Tracy Bergan feeding fellow senior Michael Reese for a 71-67 lead with 3:55 left.
Brenton Birmingham, Manhattan's senior guard, scored on the Jaspers' next three possessions, but Bergan countered on a runner. Loyola was down 75-73 when what appeared to be Bergan's game-tying drive was called off, and he instead was called for charging and exited with his fifth foul.
No sweat. The Greyhounds freshmen simply decided to play like seniors. Darius Johnson, a guard from Cincinnati who followed Prosser east, had committed a costly turnover a minute earlier, but he put Loyola ahead for good with 31 seconds left on one of his rainbow three-pointers from the top of the key.
After Jaspers center Jamal Marshall missed a short jumper from the left baseline with 11 seconds left, freshman Milton Williams -- came out of a scramble with the ball and was fouled. Shooting one-and-one, he converted both free throws, then swiped the Jaspers' inbounds pass, setting off a celebration that continued on an all-night bus ride that was to deposit the Greyhounds at Evergreen early this morning.
"It really hasn't sunk in what we just did," Bergan said. "I know in an hour, I'm going to break down and cry."
"This isn't going to hit us until we get home," said B.J. Pendleton.
The junior forward was asked if he thought he'd ever make an NCAA tournament after last season's 2-25 struggle.
"I never had the slightest idea," he said. "But we came here and played as as hard as we could every game. Now, we get to keep playing."
Manhattan might have been looking ahead to Sunday's announcement of the NCAA draw after the first 18 minutes. The Jaspers did nearly everything right in piling up a 42-26 lead.
The Greyhounds, however, climbed back into the game by cramming 11 points into the final 78 seconds of the first half. All five of the players on the court during the turnaround scored, but the biggest play came from Bergan with 11 seconds left.
Rather than wait for the last shot of the half, Bergan hit a three-pointer from the left wing, was fouled and made the free throw to complete a four-point play.
The weirdness continued at the other end with two seconds left, when Tarik Thacker was called for an illegal screen while the Jaspers were trying to inbound. Williams, who scored 14, made both free throws, giving the Greyhounds 13 free throws in the half and a less-daunting, 42-37 deficit.
Loyola needed its foul-line production, because it made only 34.5 percent of its field-goal attempts in the first half, compared with 56.7 for Manhattan. The Greyhounds shot 57.1 in the second half.
Bergan led the Greyhounds with 20 points and four assists, and Reese, who was limited to a total of 16 points in the two regular-season games with Manhattan, overcame a pair of first-half air balls to score 14. He contributed immensely on the boards, where he had a game-high 12 rebounds. Pendleton had 10 points.