Ties that bind: Loyola teammates from Kansas shine



March 23, 2018 - 11:00 PM

2018 NCAA Tournament: Loyola-Chicago

ATLANTA — Growing up in Overland Park, Clayton Custer and Ben Richardson did what basketball brothers do in March.

After a NCAA Tournament game, they’d grab a ball, find a court and reenact the action from the previous day. An April morning in 2008 stands out. Hours after Sherron Collins dribbled and handed off to Mario Chalmers for the game-tying 3-pointer against Memphis, Custer and Richardson were in a gym recreating the most clutch shot in Kansas’ hoop history.

“That one was definitely one we did a bunch,” Richardson said. “The hand-off coming off the screen, we took turns hitting that shot.”

From kids mimicking unforgettable moments, Richardson and Custer have created their own memories and helped thrust their Loyola, Ill., team to an unexpected and dramatic NCAA Tournament run.

The Ramblers have reached the Sweet 16 and will face Nevada on Thursday in the South Regional. The winner takes on the Kentucky-Kansas State survivor Saturday with a Final Four trip on the line.

The Tournament’s firstand second-rounds produced a deluge of fantastic finishes and intriguing plots. But perhaps none combined the two quite like Loyola.

A program that hadn’t been to the NCAA Tournament since 1985 dominated the Missouri Valley Conference regular season and tournament, then as a No. 11 seed won its two NCAA games with shots that will make every 2018 Tournament highlight reel: a buzzer-beater to defeat sixth-seeded Miami, Fla., and Custer’s jumper that bounced around the rim and fell through with 3.6 seconds remaining to beat No. 3 Tennessee.

The Ramblers lived to play another game, and to amplify the friendship and basketball bond that have tied Custer and Richardson since the third grade through a pair of state championships at Blue Valley Northwest and now to college basketball’s spotlight.

OK, it’s at least the second biggest story from Loyola. Sister Jean Dolores-Schmidt, the 98-year old team chaplain has been an inspiration and media star throughout the postseason. But on the court, the Ramblers are authoring their own unlikely tale.

“To be in the Sweet 16, it takes anybody a million hours to get here,” Richardson said. “You dream about things like this, and it’s what motivates you when you’re in the gym and the weight room, and it’s fun for me and Clay to be experience this together.”

Blue Valley Northwest Coach Ed Fritz has been there nearly every step of the way.

Fritz has a son, Vince, who is the same age as Richardson and Custer and helped put together a team with Ben’s dad, David, when the kids were in third grade. They all showed advanced skills and played in tournaments and grew up together in the game.

“Clay was very gifted, a natural,” Fritz said. “Ben was a hard worker.”

With the families living near each other, on either side of Nall Avenue, Fritz knew a superb team on the horizon. Custer started as a freshman, Richardson was on the varsity, and the team reached the 6A title game. That year and the next the Huskies fell to Perry Ellis-led Wichita Heights.

The breakthrough came in 2013. The team also included Mason Schoen, a senior at Kansas State — giving the South Region three former Huskies, and Mason’s brother Dalton, a Wildcats wide receiver.

Blue Valley Northwest won the first of two straight titles and by the time Custer and Richardson were finished had accumulated a 94-6 record.

“The chemistry between Clay and Ben is amazing,” Mason Schoen said. “When I was with them, to have them on the court, the game just flowed so well. They take smart, good shots, it’s a pretty efficient game when they’re on the court.”