It all was so familiar, but it was all so different at the same time. There's still a McDonald's under the El, but there's now tiered seating and chair backs. There's also some exciting basketball.
I left Chicago to move to New York City and head back closer to home last September. One of the things I knew I was going to miss was my apartment (and the rent!) and Loyola Ramblers and (gasp!) Northwestern Wildcats basketball. Every so often I get to come back to Windy City for work, and this time it just happened to coincide with a few home games.
I got off the El about an hour before game time, so I headed to my typical pregame meal at McDonald's. When I used to cover the Ramblers for Chicago College Basketball, I ate McDonald's after games on a regular basis. Now I can't do that anymore, but I didn't want to pass up some McNuggets and apple pies. (Speaking of which, what's up with these McBites? Exactly what was the point there?)
Having had a nutritious dinner, it was time for the entire reason I was there on a random Thursday night: to see the new Gentile Center. Right as I was leaving Chicago, the Ramblers were opening a new home gym. The first thing I found out was that ticket prices have gone up -- and they only take cash. I had exactly $9 in my wallet. (I mean who doesn't take a credit card these days?) As I dealt with the fact that I was going to have to go back out into the wintry mix to find an ATM, a kind lady walked up to me and asked if I needed a ticket.
Well I sure did! I'd like to say thank you to that Good Samaritan. It was an incredibly kind gesture. I tried to give her something for it and she turned it down. Now that's the Jesuit tradition expressing itself in a virtuous way.
Unfortunately not too many other people bought tickets for the Horizon League showdown between Porter Moser's 20-loss club hosting a mid-tier conference team in Green Bay. The crowd on "Ladies Night" was a bit sparse. You could basically pick your seat in the general admission section. So I found a seat in Section 208.
What a beautiful place the new Gentile Center is. I still don't think there's a bad seat in the arena and it all of a sudden feels like the Loyola (IL) program has been catapulted into the 21st century. The student section is clearly marked. There's a Fan Shop, a built-in concession stand, and everything you'd expect from a modern college basketball arena. Considering what the Gentile Center looked like before renovations began, it's a remarkable change. Oh and yes, the 100 level has chair backs. The 200 level, though, has bleacher seats embedded in concrete. To be honest, I really like them too.
Another new thing is Loyola personnel. Moser replaced Jim Whitesell on the bench. Three freshmen started the game. The only one I'd ever heard of was Joe Crisman, and he was worth the hype. He's not too athletic, but he's got a great looking jump shot and the ability to create. He's certainly a keeper. Two other first-year players, London Dokubo and Christian Thomas also started for the Ramblers. In another twist from my years in Chicago, Jordan Hicks is healthy. Oh what might have been for him?
I settled into my seat and (while checking NEC scores on my phone) watched a classic back-and-forth Horizon battle unfold. Green Bay made a little spurt right before halftime to take a five-point lead into the break, 31-26, and that looked like it might be enough to get the Phoenix the victory.
But give Moser's boys credit. The Ramblers never quit. Loyola took the lead on multiple occasions in the second half but couldn't extend it beyond much more than a point.
One of the reasons Loyola stayed in it was the play of junior Ben Averkamp. I still remember interviewing him on Midnight Madness of his freshman season. I thought right then that he'd be a force in the Horizon League. Against Green Bay, he took over the game in the second half. His aggressive play helped to keep Loyola in it. And then down two with just seconds to play his tip-in of Denzel Brito's runner tied the game at 70 and sent it to overtime.
In the extra session things stayed tight, but two big threes by Brennan Cougill and Kam Cerroni sealed the game for Green Bay and dropped Loyola to 7-21 and just 1-16 in conference. Averkamp finished with a game-high 26 points.
I feel like the next time I come back things are going to have changed even more. (And not just because the green construction fence will be down and a new building in its place.) Loyola has a great facility now and a new direction under Moser. I was impressed by both the development of players like sophomore Jonathon Gac and the play of freshmen like Crisman. Moser isn't playing with a full deck right now and he should be able to sell his vision for the Ramblers to future players and build a program that can compete in the Horizon League.
For that's really what Loyola fans are yearning for. Change that brings them wins.
GREEN BAY 73, at LOYOLA (ILL.) 70 02/23/2012
GREEN BAY 14-14 (9-8) -- J. Allen 9-20 1-1 22; K. Sykes 5-16 3-5 13; A. Brown 8-13 2-3 18; B. Cougill 7-11 2-2 19; K. Cerroni 3-7 0-0 9; S. Baker 3-4 1-2 10; T. Johnson 2-6 0-0 4; J. Humphrey 0-1 0-0 0; A. Armstead 0-2 0-0 0; G. Mays 0-0 0-0 0. Totals 28-60 8-12 73. LOYOLA (ILL.) 7-21 (1-16) -- J. Crisman 4-12 1-2 12; B. Averkamp 9-18 8-10 26; D. Brito 3-10 3-3 10; J. Hicks 5-11 0-0 10; C. Thomas 1-1 1-1 3; J. Gac 4-7 0-0 8; C. Kadima 0-1 1-2 1; L. Dokubo 0-0 0-0 0. Totals 26-60 14-18 70.
Three-point goals: GB 9-14 (B. Cougill 3-4; T. Johnson 0-1; S. Baker 3-3; K. Cerroni 3-5; K. Sykes 0-1), LOYO 4-14 (J. Hicks 0-3; B. Averkamp 0-2; D. Brito 1-2; C. Kadima 0-1; J. Crisman 3-6); Rebounds: GB 37 (A. Brown 12), LOYO 27 (B. Averkamp 10); Assists: GB 17 (K. Sykes 8), LOYO 16 (J. Crisman 6); Total Fouls -- GB 15, LOYO 12; Fouled Out: GB-None; LOYO-None.