By Patrick Engel
At some point, someone was going to make a shot.
Loyola and Northern Iowa traded misses and turnovers for the opening nine minutes, giving the 2,658 fans in Gentile Arena the feeling that scoring 50 would bring a win. The teams combined for 11 points in the opening 9:06, with UNI holding a 7-4 edge.
That is, until Clayton Custer made a shot. Then another. And another.
When he finally missed – after five straight connections – Loyola had a five-point lead.
The seemingly improbable misfire came with 55 seconds left in the first half. But Custer had another chance on the next possession. Loyola coach Porter Moser instructed him to hold for the final shot. Then, he called for an isolation for Custer.
Custer, in that isolation, made a fall-away jumper with three seconds left, giving his team a 26-19 lead at the break.
Three players scored in double figures in Loyola’s 70-47 win over UNI (11-11, 3-7 Missouri Valley) on Sunday afternoon, led by Custer’s season-high 21 points.
“I just happened to find myself open a little more today and I was able to knock down a couple shots,” Custer said.
The Ramblers (18-4, 8-2 MVC) have plenty of capable scorers. They shoot 51 percent from the field and have four players who average at least 10 points per game. Those four all rank in the MVC’s top 20 in scoring. But there’s becoming little doubt Custer makes the offense run and is best equipped to carry the team if needed.
Sunday, he was certainly needed. Loyola’s offense, stuck on four points through the first nine minutes, turned to its leading scorer for a boost. His five straight jumpers came in a span of 9:25, helping erase that 7-4 hole. When he checked out of the game for good with 1:41 left, a few chants of “M-V-P” from the student section echoed in the gym.
Custer has not only made a case for team MVP, he looks like a real candidate for MVC Player of the Year.
He’s only 12th in the conference in scoring average, but is one of two players to rank in the top 12 in scoring and top four in 3-point percentage, assists per game and steals per game. The other player is Evansville’s Dru Smith. His team, though, is eighth in the MVC standings.
Custer doesn’t own eye-popping stats like Missouri State’s Alize Johnson, the preseason MVC Player of the Year who’s averaging a double-double. Missouri State, initially picked to win the league, is 5-5 and in a three-way tie for fifth. Loyola is in first and two games ahead of everyone else. There’s something to be said for that, if it holds.
Here’s perhaps a better look at Custer’s value. His assertion against UNI comes after he sparked a 51-point second half in Wednesday’s win at Drake. Before that, he scored 11 points as part of a 16-4 run to seal a win at Valparaiso on Jan. 21. He gave Loyola the lead for good with five straight points in a Jan. 7 road win over Illinois State.
Topping it off, three of Loyola’s four losses this season came when Custer was out with an ankle injury.
“He’s locked in,” Loyola coach Porter Moser said. “He gives you a threat. He can draw and kick, he can knock down shots. He’s really in a good place right now.”
“I think he’s got the best to come.”