Loyola reaches the MAAC mountaintop — finally
Springfield, Mass. – Throughout the season, Loyola coach Jimmy Patsos has lauded the unselfishness of his lone senior in the playing rotation.
England native Shane Walker is a 6-foot-10, 222-pound forward that came to Loyola via the transfer route from the University of Maryland, where Patsos was a longtime assistant under former Terps coach Gary Williams.
He’s a good enough player to merit consideration for a spot on England men’s national team this summer when London hosts the Summer Olympics. Walker was the Loyola’s leading scorer last season, averaging 11.1 points a game but the team finished 15-15 overall and 10-8 in the Metro Atlantic Athletic Conference.
This season, with thoughts of playing for his home country and a potential professional career beckoning, the athletic forward took a new role with the team.
He was no longer the lead dog in this pack of Greyhounds, but yet a complimentary piece. He took fewer shots than the previous year – Walker took 246 shots in 30 games last season compared to 237 in 32 games this year.
Without one hint of jealously towards his teammates — sophomore guard Dylon Cormier (13.4 points per game) and junior forward Erik Etherly (13.5 points) took on more offensively — Walker went about his job down low. He fought for rebounds, still found a role in the offense – he is fifth on the team in points per game at 9.1 – and most of all, provided leadership to a roster that embodied the spirit of their eccentric head coach.
After the final buzzer sounded to Monday night’s MAAC championship game at the MassMutal Center and at long last – through eight years of building, then rebuilding, building and rebuilding under Patsos – the second seeded and Baltimore-based Loyola (24-8) program stood alone, on top of the MAAC with a 48-44 victory over the fourth-seeded Fairfield in the conference championship game. This will be Loyola’s second ever trip to the NCAA Tournament, their first since 1994, when the late Skip Prosser was coach.
However, Walker, who corralled the game-clinching rebound after Fairfield senior star forward Rakim Sanders missed a potential game-tying 3-pointer with five seconds left, did unveil an act of selfishness at the press conference podium.
He wasn’t going to let his teammates walk around with the MAAC trophy.
“I’ve been waiting four years for this; I’m not letting go of this trophy,” Walker said. “As far as the last shot, I’m getting that ball. To win the game, I had to get that redound and it didn’t matter who was in my way.”
Walker battled foul trouble throughout the game – he ended with four fouls – but played 24 vital minutes and grabbed five rebounds, including the game-clincher. Moments later, he hit the front end of a one-and-one free throw attempt that clinched the game for the Greyhounds.
“I’m so happy for Shane Walker,” Patsos said. “A lot of guys who transfer from the ACC would’ve said ‘I want to be the stat guy’ and he’s not an All-MAAC player but he’s the best player on our team.
“Day in and day out, through practice and hard work and attitude; he has all the things we needed in order to be a winner.”
With Walker strapped to the bench for most of the first half, his backup, sophomore center Jordan Latham came to the rescue.
Latham, who came into the contest averaging just one point and one rebound a game, finished with five points and five rebounds to go with one block shot – according to most on press row, total should’ve been three – in 17 minutes off the bench.
The Baltimore native, who was highly recruited coming out of City College High School, enrolled at Xavier in 2010. Latham played sparingly for the Musketeers but transferred to Loyola after the year. He received a waiver from the NCAA and was allowed to play immediately.
“Latham has an unbelievable story,” Patsos said. “He didn’t have to play this year. He transferred from Xavier and had a situation to take care of at home.”
Patsos continued, “It’s a happy situation, He came back to Baltimore because his father is overseas and R.J. (Williams) and Dylon (Cormier) told him you should play this year because you could be the difference.
“He’s a backup center – and he played at Xavier, a top 25 program. So he comes home and says ‘I know Shane is going to start but I can help us win and get to the NCAA.’”
The backbone, the very fiber of the team is found in its backcourt of Cormier, a second team All-MAAC player, and freshman point guard R.J. Williams, who stands all of 5-foot-8. Both are Baltimore natives and play a reckless, yet controlled style of play that bellies their coach’s antics on the sidelines.
When Patsos often takes a sip out of a Gatorade cup behind the sidelines with play is going on the court, the slender Cormier can be seen slashing, driving through lanes and making life miserable for the opposition with his in-your-face defense. Williams, who attended St. Francis Academy, was teammates with UMass’s Terrell Vinson in high school. The freshman point has started 27 games this season and outplayed Fairfield’s point guard, Houston transfer, Desmond Wade, whose one shot make was a 3-pointer at the shot clock buzzer.
Williams picked up token full-court pressure most of the game and was key in harassing Fairfield shooters into an anemic 28 shooting percentage (15-52) in the game.
“Cormier and R.J. talk in the huddle; they are our little tough guys from Baltimore,” Patsos said. “College kids nowadays say ‘I’ and ‘me’ 78 times before they have breakfast.
“I think on this team, with R.J. and Dylon, because they are Baltimore kids, doing it the Baltimore way; they are about winning.”
Not far from where Patsos recruited Williams and Cormier, he found junior guard Robert Olson (11.2 points per game) in Silver
Springs, Md., and in Alexandria, Va., Etherly, who earned MAAC Tournament Most Outstanding Player honors after scoring 21 in each of the weekend’s first two games.
In the championship game, Etherly scored 10 but it was his defense, particularly on Sanders, that had NBA scouts on press row impressed.
Several times in the second half, Sanders would take Etherly to the post and try to outmuscle him with a shot in the paint. But Etherly stood his ground and swatted two shots and altered at least four more that left one NBA scout gasping “he can’t take him down low!”
Sanders finished shooting 3-of-14 from the field for 12 points, half of which came from the free throw line.
“I stopped going for his pump fakes,” Etherly said. “He’s a good player and can have his way down low, but I had to stand my ground because my team needed me down there.”
For a group of players, who put team before self, and their coach, who battled, fought and silenced his naysayers, there was no chest-thumping afterwards, only a multitude of thanks from their lead greyhound.
“This is the culmination of the work of many people,” Patsos said. “It was the players this year but it was many others who came before us who made this happen.
Patsos continued, “(This) is a major event for our school. When I took over at Loyola, the program had gone 1-27. Loyola is an amazing place that believed in our team, believed in me and gave us an opportunity to win.
“We made that happen.”