By Patrick Engel
MOLINE – Loyola players and coaches hung around the TaxSlayer Center after their game to watch the Missouri Valley’s award ceremony. They gazed from across the court and offered periodic golf claps as the league’s individual award winners climbed onto a makeshift stage to accept a plaque, certificate or trophy as recognition.
A team made of mostly underclassmen looked on as veteran-laden Drake collected the loot from its merciless run to a second straight 18-0 conference season. Drake players took home seven honors, including the MVC’s player of the year. Barring an upset, the Bulldogs will collect another trophy – a conference tournament championship – and a spot in the NCAA tournament at the conclusion of the weekend.
“That’s a team we want to be in three to four years,” said Loyola freshman Abby O’Connor, an MVC All-Freshman team selection.
Even with a five-win improvement this season, Loyola still has a long way to get there. The No. 9 seed Ramblers lost to eighth-seeded Valparaiso 63-46 Thursday afternoon in the opening round of the MVC tournament, ending their season. It was the final game for seniors Jessica Cerda, Katie Salmon and Lee Williams. It looked nothing like the last time the two teams met, when Loyola squandered a late third quarter 12-point lead. This one was a wire-to-wire display of stagnant offense and contested shots.
“I thought we held the ball, didn’t go inside out, and the shots that we did have that were open, we couldn’t knock them down for whatever reason,” Loyola coach Kate Achter said. “I know that group has more in them than what they showed.”
Loyola shot 25.9 percent from the field, was 3-for-20 on 3-pointers and went more than four minutes into the game before scoring its first point.
The Ramblers (7-23, 5-13 MVC) had a chance to slice into Valpo’s 11-point lead in the final minute of the third quarter. Freshman guard Ellie Rice was fouled on a desperation 15-foot heave and made a pair of free throws with three seconds left. Valpo was whistled for a five-second violation on the ensuing inbound, giving the Ramblers a free possession. O’Connor’s mid-range jumper one second later was blocked, though, and Valpo started the fourth quarter on a 12-0 run that ended realistic hopes of a comeback.
Cerda led Loyola with 11 points, but was 3-for-12 from the floor. Rice added 10, while Salmon had nine.
Valpo’s top two scorers, Dani Franklin and Meredith Hamlet, were non-factors for three quarters in the February meeting with Loyola. The Ramblers had keyed on them from the start. Thursday, though, each scored in the game’s first two minutes and the pair combined for 36 points.
“Once they’re involved and engaged, the rest of our team follows suit,” Valpo acting head coach Justin Rees said.
Achter offered a hint of surprise at the result. She pointed out that Loyola had a 4-4 record from late January to late February, and last weekend, even gave Drake all it could handle for about 13 minutes before the Bulldogs woke up and exercised their will. It’s why Achter thought her team had a legitimate chance to advance in the tournament. Instead, though, she lamented the lack of offense, in light of scoring at least 60 points five times in that 4-4 stretch.
“I didn’t feel like we showcased what we’re capable of doing,” Achter said. “But we have a lot of work do to.”