CHICAGO – A new generation of basketball fans here in the Windy City are just getting to know about Loyola basketball.
It’s an education triggered by a surprise run to the Elite Eight this season – the first time a team within the city limits has made it this far in the Division I men’s tournament since 1979. The Ramblers’ got there by knocking off Nevada in the Sweet 16 on Thursday, March 22nd in Atlanta and now play on Saturday, March 24th for the chance to make the Final Four.
Sandwiched in the middle of those dates is March 23rd -and so far it’s the greatest day for not only Ramblers basketball but for all Division I programs in the state.
Friday marks the 55th anniversary of Loyola’s National Championship game victory over Cincinnati in Louisville on March 23, 1963. Just like their current run, the 60-58 win featured plenty of drama – including an overtime and buzzer-beater.
After a win over Duke in the National Semifinal, the Ramblers faced the 26-1 Bearcats for the championship in front of 19,153 fans at Freedom Hall. It didn’t begin well, as Loyola fell behind 45-30 in the second half as Cincinnati was poised to turn the game into a rout.
But George Ireland’s team, which was 28-2 heading into the contest, stormed back and tied the game at 54 late to force overtime.
Defense reigned in the extra session with both teams getting just four points in the extra session. The Ramblers held the ball for long portion of the end of the five-minute session in an attempt to get the final shot, and finally made their move in the final ten seconds. All-American Jerry Harkness would drive to the baseline and rises up in what looks like a shot attempt, but at the last second he changes course and throws it to Les Hunter around the free throw line.
He would get a clean look at the basket and fired the shot, but it went off the rim. Luckily for Loyola, Vic Rouse was in position to tip the ball in before the buzzer to give the Ramblers the victory.
Immediately players, coaches, and cheerleaders storm the Freedom Hall floor to celebrate the title. It was the first championship for any Division I team in Illinois, and 55 years later that face hasn’t changed.
While the championship victory itself was significant, the run by Loyola was also historic because of its impact on the integration of College Basketball. Seven African-Americans – four for the Ramblers and three for Cincinnati – started that championship game, which was a record at that time.
Back in the Mideast Region semifinals, Loyola took part in the now famous “Game of Change” against Mississippi State in East Lansing. The Bulldogs ignored a mandate from the governor which prohibited schools from Mississippi from playing integrated teams in order to face the Ramblers.
The contest has been the subject of numerous long form stories and even a documentary to commorate the 50th anniversary of the contest.