Blue Valley Northwest Alums Brought a Winning Attitude to Loyola's Final Four
Ben Richardson, Clayton Custer and Loyola coach Porter Moser at the NCAA men's basketball tournament.
All photos courtesy of Steve Woltmann/Loyola Athletics
Best friends and teammates since grade school, Blue Valley Northwest alums Ben Richardson and Clayton Custer brought their winning attitude to Loyola Chicago’s Final Four team.
Anyone who watched Loyola Chicago this season knew that this team was more than just a fun little story, more than just the double-digit seed that was a trendy pick to maybe win one game in the NCAA Tournament.
The Ramblers were simply legit, a team in the truest sense of the word who knew exactly how to play the game the way it should be played. And two of the central figures on this Loyola squad that advanced to the Final Four, Clayton Custer and Ben Richardson, were trained to play that brand of team basketball from an early age on the basketball courts of Johnson County.
Lifelong friends who grew up in the same Overland Park neighborhood together, Custer and Richardson have always been winners. While playing for Ed Fritz at Blue Valley Northwest, they made four state championship appearances, won two state titles as juniors and seniors, and won 94 of the 100 games they played overall in high school.
Custer, a junior who previously played at Iowa State, earned Player of the Year honors in the Missouri Valley Conference and also won the Lou Henson Award as the nation’s best mid-major player. Richardson was the Missouri Valley’s Defensive Player of the Year, and the senior guard also had the game of his life against Kansas State to help Loyola reach the Final Four for the first time since 1963.
Retracing their steps to when they were grade-schoolers learning the game from Fritz, it’s easy to understand how and why Richardson and Custer got here.
“Just being able to be around Coach Fritz throughout our development so early on was just super-key,” Richardson says. “Starting when we were like in third grade, we were there in the gym at Northwest or Blue Valley North or Blue Valley West. We were in there at all the camps, doing all the things with the older guys. We were playing summer leagues, and then we were traveling around playing AAU tournaments. Just being around Coach Fritz and how he started this grassroots [effort], we came in through his coaching and his style, and we learned the game from him at such a young age that it really allowed us to be super-advanced in how we understood the game and how we approached working out to get better.
“When most kids were just worrying about having sleepovers, we were worried about how we could become better basketball players and how we could work hard to make dreams come true.”
And Fritz wasn’t about to sugarcoat anything or dilute his coaching principles for little kids.
“When he was coaching Northwest and we were in fourth or fifth grade playing for him,” Custer says, “he was yelling at us and getting on us the same way as he was with the high school team.So we definitely had to grow up faster playing with Coach Fritz, but he pushed us to get better and we were thankful for what he did for us.”
Richardson was padding those hustle stats and building his reputation as a gritty, hard-nosed competitor from the jump.
“I gave a speech at our banquet the other day, and I just remember looking back when I was growing up playing those carpet courts, you know, at the elementary schools,” Richardson says. “Like really, really young. I just remember my parents would be so happy when they’d see how many rug burns I had all over my body. I was out there scrapping and diving on the floor, flying around everywhere, so that’s just how I developed that mentality.”
From there, Custer and Richardson played on teams at Northwest that were nearly unbeatable. In their undefeated 2012-13 season, no team from the state of Kansas got within single digits of the Huskies by the time the final buzzer sounded. In 2014, Blue Valley Northwest avenged a regular-season home loss to Blue Valley North by blitzing the Mustangs in the state championship game, 73-46.
“To play our rival in our last high school game and to beat them,” Custer says, “was probably the most special moment for us.”
Upon graduation from Northwest, with the first two state basketball championships in school history to end their high school careers on top, Richardson and Custer went their separate ways: Richardson to Chicago and Custer to Ames. While Richardson started in 12 of his last 13 games in his first year for coach Porter Moser, Custer was fighting for playing time as a freshman on a stacked Iowa State team that won the 2015 Big 12 Tournament, and he eventually considered transferring.
“When I decided to transfer, I did not know where I wanted to go. I had no idea,” Custer says. “I was just waiting to see who was going to call me, who was going to give me an opportunity. Ben was obviously in my ear from the beginning trying to get me to come to Loyola, and so I did. I came out here and visited and didn’t have any intention of committing while I was here. But Loyola was the first official visit I took when I decided to transfer, and I committed on the spot. I knew it felt like the right fit for me to get back together with Ben, and I believed in everything that Coach was saying. So it ended up being the right choice, I think.”
It certainly was, but it took some time. In Custer’s first year with the team, Loyola Chicago finished 18-14 and was fifth in the Valley. Custer averaged 11.6 points a game in the 2016-17 season while Richardson averaged 8.3.
It was a solid if unspectacular campaign.
“You know, last year we had a good team. We had a lot of talent. We had a top-seven offensive efficiency in the country, and that was something people told us is really great. And that didn’t get us very far,” Richardson says. “We finished in the middle of the pack in our league. It was a good season compared to previous seasons here, but we wanted more. What really clicked, I think, was something Coach had always talked about in the preseason, which was the top three teams in defense in our league always finish in that order in the standings overall. When Wichita [State] won the league, they had the best defensive field goal percentage. When Northern Iowa won and they were at the top, they always had the best defense. It always ended up being that way. It was something he had always talked about, but until this year, we hadn’t really bought into it. Throughout the offseason, trying to do things better than we’ve ever done them, we really bought into guarding better. I think we took really big steps.”
Adding new pieces this year helped Loyola clamp down defensively and gave them more scoring options, with junior transfer Marques Townes and freshmen Lucas Williamson and Cameron Krutwig making valuable contributions. Put senior Donte Ingram and the two Kansas kids in the mix, and the Ramblers were off and running.
Custer and Richardson both knew this could be a great team before the season started. But it definitely started to feel real when they traveled to Gainesville on Dec. 6 and beat the fifth-ranked Florida Gators 65-59. That got things percolating nationally with Loyola, and as everyone would find out, that was no fluke.
The Ramblers would rip through conference play with two separate seven-game winning streaks, capturing the regular season title in the Valley with a 15-3 record.
Heading into the Missouri Valley Conference tournament, they were 25-5 and playing the No. 9 seed in the league, Northern Iowa, in their first game. Loyola ran into trouble though and trailed by four in a low-scoring slog with 11 minutes to play. But it was a prologue to what we’d see from them throughout the postseason.
“The situation we were in, even though we had such a good year, we still were going to have to win the tournament in order to go to the NCAA Tournament. There were definitely some times in that first game against UNI in the conference tournament where you start having some thoughts where it’s like, wow, we can’t let this happen,” Custer says. “But we’ve done a good job of staying focused and trusting the process. We knew that as long as we started doing what we needed to do, we would end up pulling that game out. We were lucky enough to move on and a lot of times, the first game in those tournament settings is the hardest one just because there’s so much hype and everybody’s so anxious to play. Once you get that first one out of the way, it’s easier to relax after that.”
Loyola would beat Northern Iowa 54-50, then beat Bradley by eight and Illinois State by 16 to reach the Big Dance for the first time since 1985. Much like the Royals partied like it’s 1985 with its two recent World Series appearances, it was a testament to what can happen when opportunity meets belief, and Loyola Chicago had a Royal-esque knack for winning no matter what was thrown at them:
- Ingram hit Loyola’s first game-winner against sixth-seeded Miami in the Ramblers’ opening game of the NCAA Tournament. His deep (check that, really deep) three-pointer from the top of the key hardly moved the net and lifted the Ramblers to a 64-62 victory.
- Next up was third-seeded Tennessee, the athletic and skilled co-champion of the SEC. The Vols led by nine early, but quickly wilted offensively thanks to Loyola’s impenetrable defense. The Ramblers led most of the second half until a Tennessee run gave the Vols a 62-61 lead. All that did was set up the second game-winner, Custer’s jumper that bounced on the rim, kissed off the glass and dropped in for 63-62 win and a trip to the Sweet 16.
- Next up was seventh-seeded Nevada, a scary offensive team with five scorers who can beat you everywhere on the floor. In almost a repeat of the Tennessee game, the Wolf Pack led by nine early but got careless and got rattled by Loyola’s defense. Nevada was held scoreless for the last 7:57 of the first half, but didn’t back down in the second half and only trailed by one in the final minute until Loyola’s third game-winner, a Townes three-pointer, sealed the game for a 69-68 victory.
“In those two games [against Tennessee and Nevada], we came out real slow. We didn’t come out with the focus and attention to detail that we usually do,” Custer says. “Coach challenged us in the huddle and got us back on track, and when we guard the way we’re capable of guarding, it’s hard for teams to score on us. We plug, we’re in the gaps, and it’s hard to get to the basket and we make people shoot contested shots. Even against really talented teams like that, if we stuck to our principles, we were a really hard team to score against.”
Kansas State was all that stood in the way of Loyola reaching the Final Four. Of all teams to draw in the Elite Eight, it was a school from Kansas that Custer and Richardson would face for their shot at college basketball’s biggest stage.
Against the Wildcats, Richardson had a game that you only imagine on that carpet court as a kid. He was in such a zone that K-State never recovered from it. All told, Richardson made six three-pointers, had 23 points, six rebounds and four assists in a 78-62 rout to push Loyola into the Final Four.
“I knew during warmups my shot was feeling good, and I just got in a rhythm early in that game,” Richardson says. “My teammates just kept finding me, so in games like that, me being the competitor that I am, having that mentality that once I get it going a little bit I start feeling it, it just felt like every time the ball came out of my hands it felt perfect, like I couldn’t miss. It’s hard to explain. It’s just the rhythm of the game, you feel like everything’s coming so easy. Way easier than normal. Things just fall your way, and that’s how it was. It ended up being kind of like a dream, just because it’s do-or-die, to go to the Final Four. Something I’ve wanted my whole life. It was way better than I ever dreamed.”
Familiar faces were in the crowd to cheer on Custer and Richardson during Loyola’s run. Teammates from Northwest like Vince Fritz, Kyle Harrison and David Salach were on hand. And there was Coach Fritz in the front row, driving to Dallas on a whim for the first game without packing a suitcase, and then hugging his former star players when they won the South Regional in Atlanta.
“I know it made him really happy to see us have that success,” Richardson says, “because he’s one of those people that really was there to see all the hours we poured into this game and into our craft to get to where we are.”
When time ran out on Loyola’s season with a 69-57 loss to Michigan in the national semifinal, it was Richardson who took it the hardest, with Custer trying to console him. Sobbing into his jersey and arm in arm with his best friend, Richardson walked off the court with Custer one last time.
In the weeks since, the enormity of the accomplishment has started to set in. In June, Custer and Richardson will be honored as the Kansas City Sports Commission’s Sportsmen of the Year. Loyola has gotten the high-roller treatment in Chicago at Bulls and Blackhawks games, and at Wrigley Field, Richardson threw out the first pitch for the Cubs’ Opening Day game. Moser was initially approached to throw it, but he asked Richardson if he wanted to. He jumped at the chance.
“Honestly, I hadn’t thrown a baseball in like a year or two. I knew that this was not something that I wanted to pass up if Coach gave me the opportunity,” Richardson says. “We got to sing at the seventh-inning stretch too, so that was really awesome, especially somewhere like Wrigley that’s such a historic stadium. Something I’ll never forget.”
Custer is also appreciative of the reception the Windy City has given them. “Looking back now, now that we’ve gotten back to Chicago and seen all the support that we’ve had, the way Chicago’s welcomed us back has been awesome,” he says. “We’ve been able to reflect on what we did, and we realized that what we did was pretty cool.”