Moment can't be taken away from Loyola basketball team

They walked off the plane Tuesday at BWI-Marshall with Shane Walker, their senior big man, cradling the gleaming trophy like it was a baby— his baby— and in a sense it was.

This was Loyola's trophy for winning the Metro Atlantic Athletic Conference tournament the night before and it was a beauty: a tall, 30-pound gold cup that shone so brightly it made your eyes hurt.

Walker carried it on the flight back from Springfield, Mass. He put it in its own seat, buckled it in, did everything but order it a Sprite and a bag of peanuts.

"Yeah, it's been hard to get it away from me," said Walker, who hit the free throw with five seconds left that clinched Loyola's win. "We all worked so hard for this."

What a time this is for the little school at the corner of Charles and Coldspring.

Imagine: the Greyhounds are headed to the Big Dance for the first time since 1994. They beat Fairfield 48-44Monday night to win their first MAAC title in 18 years in a game Loyola coach Jimmy Patsos billed as "Jesuits versus Jesuits," making it sound like some kind of rosary-bead smack-down.

Now the Greyhounds wait for Selection Sunday to find out who they play in the first round of the NCAA tournament . And if you ask Patsos if he cares where his team goes or who it plays —even if it's a humble play-in game —he shakes his head.

"It's fine, doesn't matter to me," Patsos said. "As long as we're in the tournament."

What a great time this is for Patsos, too.

Eight years ago, he took over a Loyola program that cratered and went 1-27 the year before. In his first season (2004-05), the Greyhounds went 6-22 and the long knives came out.

He heard it all: you can't coach, your team stinks, your program's a joke, it's a lacrosse school and that's all it'll ever be.

Oh, and by the way? You'll probably be fired soon, too.

Have a nice day.

Maybe that's what caused the emotional Patsos to get misty-eyed after the 'Hounds' 70-60 win in the MAAC semis Sunday and say: "I just didn't want anybody laughing at us like they used to . . . I don't think anybody's laughing at Loyola now."

No, probably not. Now the 'Hounds are 24-8 and coming off a 13-5 season in the MAAC.

Now they're coming off a tremendous win that featured a pressure defense that frustrated Fairfield to no end —especially in the second half. And this from a Loyola team in foul trouble right from the opening tip.

With the 'Hounds being whistled for everything except having ugly uniforms, Patsosstarted channeling Gary Williams, his old boss at Maryland.

"I kept hearing Gary Williams saying pressure defense is good 'cause it keeps wearing (the other team) down as the game goes on," Patsos said. "But I also heard him say: 'You guys are jittery, nervous, and pressure defense takes that away 'cause you're too busy pressing and running to worry about, gee, is my guy gonna shoot or should I make the next shot?'"

Whew, lot of voices there. No wonder Jimmy gets so worked up on the sidelines.

But how good was the 'Hounds defense in the second half?

This good: they held the Stags scoreless for the first 7:47, then allowed only 14 points the rest of the way.

"You look at the final score, it looks more like a halftime score," Walker said. "But it was a great game for TV and a great game for Loyola."

When it was over, when the Loyola players were through celebrating this gutty win and their first NCAA tournament bid in forever, the first congratulatory call Patsos got was from a Mr. Steve Bisciotti.

The Ravens owner kept his message simple.

"He said: 'Way to finish – now make sure you have a fun week," Patsos recalled. "Because the odds are against us winning the next game. Of course, we'll try to win . . . but he was saying 'Don't just make it a one-day fun thing for (the players). Make it a good week for them, too.'"

How can it not be now?

"This is going to be great for the school – especially for the fans who supported us all year," said Walker, hugging the championship trophy now as if the two were dating. "The buzz on campus is going to be big. As far as recruiting, it's going to be great for the program."

Sunday the 'Hounds find out who they play in the Big Dance. Maybe they'll see themselves on TV again, this time leaping out of their seats and hugging and high-fiving when their pairing is announced.

That'll be great for the program, too.

Listen to Kevin Cowherd at 7:20 a.m. Tuesdays on 105.7 The Fan's "The Norris and Davis Show."

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