As the miraculous finishes mounted, one after the other, the Loyola Chicago players began to wonder: Did they have something on their side beyond a rash of good luck and some superb shot-making?
The Ramblers won their first-round NCAA tournament game on a last-second three-pointer by Donte Ingram. They prevailed in the second round after Clayton Custer made a 15-foot jumper that bounced high off the rim before falling through the basket. They advanced to a regional final thanks to Marques Townes’ late three-pointer, which provided a four-point cushion in a one-point victory.
Loyola wasn’t just winning games; it was capturing hearts with the improbability of so many things going its way.
“I mean, that’s only supposed to happen once,” forward Dylan Boehm said with a smile Friday as he sat in front of his locker inside the Alamodome on the eve of the 11th-seeded Ramblers’ national semifinal against third-seeded Michigan. “It’s not supposed to happen three times. So it’s hard to sit here and say we didn’t have some help along the way.”
A few minutes earlier, that special assistance was wheeled into a small room nearby crammed with so many reporters and cameramen that it would have turned a fire marshal’s face fire-engine red. Only one thing could generate so much interest.
Sister Jean was in the building.
Sister Jean Dolores-Schmidt, Loyola’s 98-year-old team chaplain and unofficial scouting director, has become the maroon-and-gold darling of the NCAA tournament among fans of all religious denominations and school allegiances.
“I think the company could retire when they’re finished making these bobbleheads,” Sister Jean cracked.
Asked about the Instagram message from former Michigan star Jalen Rose’s grandmother in which the woman predicted that Loyola’s tournament run was ending Saturday, Sister Jean said someone suggested that she might need a pair of boxing gloves to settle the matter.
“I hope we see each other,” Sister Jean said of the grandmother without a trace of malice in her voice. “I hope we meet there [at the game]. I love to meet people.”
Sister Jean leads the Ramblers in pregame prayer and provides a scouting report on the opposition. She used to deliver her report verbally but began scribbling notes she handed to a player to read aloud later in the locker room after cameras started following her every move in recent weeks.
She unabashedly roots for her team but also sends best wishes to opponents in her prayers. Of course, those wishes extend only so far.
“At the end of the prayer,” Sister Jean said, “I always ask God to be sure that the scoreboard indicates that the Ramblers have the big ‘W.’ … God always hears but maybe he thinks it’s better for us to do the ‘L’ instead of the ‘W,’ and we have to accept that.”
Sister Jean openly acknowledges the limits of her powers; she had the Ramblers advancing only to a South Regional semifinal in her tournament bracket. After Loyola won the game that would send it to the regional final, Custer gave Sister Jean what she described as “a nice sweaty hug” and apologized for breaking her bracket.
“I said, ‘Go ahead and break it a little bit more,’ ” Sister Jean said.
The role of religion in sports has been debated this week with Final Four participants Loyola and Villanova being Catholic schools and the Wildcats featuring their own chaplain in Father Rob Hagan, who picks his team to win it all every year. Does God not only care who wins a basketball game but play a role in the outcome?
“I think God tries to stay out of it as much as possible,” Michigan guard Muhammad-Ali Abdur-Rahkman said. “I mean, we’ve all worked so hard to get to this point. I think to be put in the position that we’ve been put in, God may have a hand in that, but out there on the court, I think it’s just all on the players.”
Michigan doesn’t hold a pregame team prayer but what swingman Duncan Robinson described as a period of “reflecting.”
“Coach [John] Beilein’s very socially aware of the fact that he doesn’t want to be pushing religion on anyone individually because we come from all sorts of backgrounds,” Robinson said. “But we just reflect and be thankful before and after games.”
Sister Jean could be considered a woman of the people, living on the top floor of Regis Hall, a campus dormitory. Her journey to her room takes a bit longer these days after she broke her left hip during a fall in November, necessitating the use of a wheelchair.
In addition to her scouting reports, Sister Jean sends encouraging emails to players and coaches after games. She celebrates their triumphs in her messages and soothes their disappointments.
Ingram said the Ramblers like to joke that they’ve made it this far because they have God and Sister Jean on their side while also more earnestly acknowledging their perseverance through a series of taut games.
The way Loyola has played, divine intervention may not be necessary.
“They’re not here because of Sister Jean,” Michigan’s Robinson said. “I would say they’re here because they’re a really good team.”
Follow Ben Bolch on Twitter @latbbolch