Best friends since the third grade, Clayton Custer held up Ben Richardson as he sobbed while walking off the basketball court for the last time.
"He grabbed me around the neck, and I just started holding him up," Custer said after the Ramblers' season-ending loss to Michigan in the Final Four on Saturday. "To see somebody I grew up with going through that much pain was hard to see. ... The fact that it's his last year. And our last time playing together."
"It's not going to sink in yet," an emotional Richardson said. "It hurts to have this be the last one."
Coach Porter Moser then consoled Richardson on the way to the locker room, grabbing the senior, pulling him close and telling him, "You changed the direction of this program."
Junior guard Marques Townes, who cramped up midway through the second half and lost the explosiveness that allowed him to outquick Michigan defenders in the first half, sat shellshocked in the locker room with a mixture of emotions.
"Happy (tears) because of what we did coming to the Final Four," Townes said, "playing on a national stage, wearing Loyola across your chest — reppin' our community and the city of Chicago. Sad (tears) because of the seniors ... just thinking about what we could have done better."
Townes said once Michigan made its run in the second half, "We couldn't stop the bleeding."
Custer likewise felt the regret. After four thrilling NCAA tournament wins — in which the 11th-seeded Ramblers upset Miami (Fla.) off a buzzer-beater, Tennessee off a last-second jumper, Nevada by one point in the Sweet 16 and then Kansas State by a nice margin in the Elite Eight — Loyola wasn't on its A-game in the second half and uncharacteristically turned the ball over and made defensive errors that ended up costing them against a Michigan team they led by seven points in the first half.
"A lot of tears, a lot of anger," Custer said. "Just because we made mistakes that we usually don't make. People were upset at themselves. We've been good defensively all year, and then we were messing up (defensive) rotations. I think if we would have stuck to the game plan, we would have won the game. We were just sad it's over, and frustrated with ourselves."
Michigan's Moe Wagner finished with 24 points and 15 rebounds. Custer said that while Wagner is "a hell of a player," Loyola faltered with its handling of the stretch big man.
"We had a plan for him and we didn't execute it very well in the second half," he said. "Sometimes, college kids make mistakes."
All season long, Loyola maintained the motto of "no finish line" — as a rallying cry that helped them on a storybook run that captivated the nation. Not only were the Ramblers just the fourth No. 11 seed to reach the Final Four. Not only did this team deliver buzzer-beaters, clutch shots and a lovably famous 98-year-old nun (Sister Jean). Loyola did it all by playing team basketball and beating power conference opponents with camaraderie and team chemistry that put their unselfish, mature dynamic in the national spotlight.
"These guys are just so high character," an emotional Moser said. "What they did is very hard to do. They changed (pauses). They left an impact on this school, the student body. ...Look at the perception of people looking at what they did and how they did it.
"And they're not going to know that right now, because there's pain in the locker room. It was as tough a locker room as I've seen because they believed they belonged and they believed like they wanted to advance."
Townes said of this team's legacy on college basketball: "Anybody who hears the word Loyola, you'll be respected for (the rest of your) lifetime. Anybody who hears Loyola can think about a high-character group who have great heart and grit. A group that never quits. I feel like we changed the direction of this program."
Every NCAA tournament win for Loyola this March, a different player stepped up with clutch heroics, epitomizing the madness that comes with one of the biggest spectacles in sports. In the first-round, it was Donte Ingram's top-of-the-key buzzer-beater to sink No. 6 Miami. "We all believed in each other," Ingram said after the Michigan loss.
In the second round, it was Custer's game-winner with three seconds left to drop No. 3 Tennessee. "It was the best time of my life," Custer said of the run. "I thought we had a shot to win the national championship. I'm proud as hell to be on this team with these guys. ...I think we inspired the city. I think we inspired Loyola, people in general from across the country. I think we inspired people in general."
In the Sweet 16, it was Townes' three-pointer with six seconds left to clip No. 7 Nevada.
"We'll be engraved in history," Townes said. "We'll have a brotherhood forever. We shouldn't have any regrets because of what we did this year."
And against Kansas State, it was Richardson's 23 points and six three-pointers.
"I mean, it hurts right now," Richardson said. "And we're disappointed. But we're going to be able to have a lot of pride in the fact that we made a name for ourselves and kind of let the whole country know what we're about. And we earned everything we got. I think we did it the right way. ...And I think a lot of people will remember this run for a long time."
Freshman big man Cameron Krutwig, who finished with 17 points and six rebounds as the team's best player in the final game of an epic NCAA run, summed up the emotional aftershock of the team's Final Four loss in the locker room as tears dripped down his eyes.
"The memories will outweigh the pain," he said softly. "Just not yet."