SAN ANTONIO (AP) — Sister Jean Dolores-Schmidt was waiting at the hallway door when Loyola-Chicago's frustrated, teary-eyed players left the Final Four court.
The 98-year-old nun leaned up from her wheelchair to greet each Rambler with a hug and a few consoling words — a dozen gentle versions of solace, according to the players who love her.
"She said she was proud of us," big man Cameron Krutwig said in a wavering voice. "'Way to leave your heart out there for Loyola. Way to make a name for yourself.'"
Loyola-Chicago's improbable run through the NCAA Tournament ended Saturday night with a 69-57 loss to Michigan. Everybody's favorite underdog team and their No. 1 fan had a 10-point lead in the second half, but couldn't overcome a slew of late turnovers and missed shots.
The magic that made the Ramblers into national darlings was hard to remember at the Alamodome.
Sister Jean still told her players they'll never be forgotten.
"Sister Jean just said it was a great season," Aundre Jackson said. "She was so happy to be on this run with us, and we should keep our heads high and be happy with what we accomplished."
The Ramblers readily acknowledge Sister Jean has become a bigger celebrity than any player on her beloved team, and she was greeted by cheers, waves and dozens of outstretched phones when she rolled out to her seat before the semifinal. She watched the game from a platform just off the court opposite Loyola's bench, sitting with a few fellow Ramblers fans.
Several security people stood around the small section of seats, keeping fans and gawkers at a respectful distance. Fans throughout the arena wore T-shirts reading "Win One for the Nun!" and a sign in the crowd encouraged Michigan to give obedience to "Jean's Plan."
"She's become a huge celebrity, and she's a great part of this team," Krutwig said. "A lot of people know our name now in college hoops, and her impact has been as great as ours."
Sister Jean's pregame message in the locker room was the same as always, the players said: Play hard, play together and play smart, and hopefully you'll come out on top. If it doesn't happen, she tells them regularly, it wasn't meant to be.
"It was great to see her there after the game," guard Clayton Custer said. "She's been with us all the way. She's an incredible person."
After a thoroughly charming news conference Friday, Sister Jean couldn't wait to watch the most unlikely run by her Ramblers since 1963, when they beat the two-time defending champion University of Cincinnati in overtime to win the national title.
Sister Jean watched that big game on tape delay back home on an 11-inch, black-and-white television. For this improbable trip to the Final Four, there was no question she would be right on the scene.
Sister Jean watched attentively in the second half while Loyola's healthy lead dwindled and vanished in a flurry of turnovers. During a timeout with 1:39 to play and the Ramblers down 10, Sister Jean's helpers wheeled her away from her seat and took her backstage to the locker room door, eager to avoid the crush of traffic after the final whistle and before the second game between Kansas and Villanova.
After greeting her players, Sister Jean was wheeled down a long Alamodome corridor and into a waiting white van. The Ramblers' incredible season may be over without a national title, but Sister Jean helped to guarantee they'll be remembered.
"You never want to go out like that, but we're proud," Krutwig said. "It hurts right now, and even though it might hurt for everyone for a while, once we get over it and realize what we did, I think the memories are going to outweigh the pain for sure."
Coach Porter Moser said he was proud of players Ben Richardson, Aundre Jackson and Donte Ingram for holding it together during a postgame news conference, answering questions with red eyes and long faces.
"It was as tough a locker room as I've seen," Moser said. "They believed that they belong. They believed, they wanted to advance."
Loyola had no answers for 6-foot-11 Moe Wagner and its offense, so smooth and efficient on the way to San Antonio, broke down in the second half and finished with 17 turnovers.
Wagner, playing in front of his parents who made the trip from Germany, scored 24 points, had 15 rebounds and was 10 for 16 from the field. Charles Matthews, the Kentucky transfer and Chicago native, added 17 points, including a run-out dunk with 1:33 left that made it 63-53.
And that was that.
"I just tried to go in the game, take what the opponent is giving me, what the game is giving me, stay emotionally solid and don't get emotionally drunk, and it worked out today," said Wagner, who became the third player in the last 40 years with a 20 and 15 game in the Final Four, joining Hakeem Olajuwon of Houston in 1983 (then known as Akeem) and Larry Bird of Indiana State in 1979.
As the seconds ticked off, Wagner pumped his fist to the many Michigan fans who made the trek to San Antonio and Loyola's Jackson, who got the Ramblers rolling with a late game-winning 3 in the first round against Miami, looked toward the roof and shook his head.
Cameron Krutwig, Loyola's big man, scored 17 points and Clayton Custer had 13 of his 15 after halftime. But facing one of the best defensive teams in the country, the Ramblers scored just 16 points in the final 14 minutes.
Custer scored seven straight points for Loyola at one point to put the Ramblers up 41-31 with 14:08 remaining. Michigan refused to fade, even with point guard Zavier Simpson — whose solid play has been critical to the Wolverines' late-season surge — playing terribly. Simpson had no points and four turnovers.
Jaaron Simmons, Simpson's backup, made a 3 and Duncan Robinson hit another a few minutes later and the deficit was down to 45-42 with 10 minutes left.
"Not dropping our heads, that was the main thing," Simmons said. "We haven't been down in a game for a long time. So not dropping our heads was one of the main adjustments we had to make."
Wagner hit a 3 from right in front of the Michigan bench with 6:50 left to tie it, and moments later the Wolverines were back on top, 49-47, when Jordan Poole made two free throws.
Loyola turned it over on three straight possessions and Wagner tipped in a miss by Poole, was fouled and converted the three-point play to put Michigan up 54-47 with just under five minutes left.
Michigan has more work to do. The Wolverines will resume the underdog role against Villanova Monday night, trying to win its second NCAA championship.