Nikko Landon, Bennett Kwiecinski lead Loyola past St. Ignatius to win Jesuit Cup

Loyola's Nikko Landon (23) drives to the basket against St. Ignatius during their 56-46 victory at Northwestern University in Evanston, Friday, February 8, 2019. | Kevin Tanaka/For the Sun Times
Loyola's Nikko Landon (23) drives to the basket against St. Ignatius during their 56-46 victory at Northwestern University in Evanston, Friday, February 8, 2019. | Kevin Tanaka/For the Sun Times

Loyola senior Nikko Landon got off the team bus at Welsh-Ryan Arena on Friday night with a new mindset.

The Ramblers, minus injured leader Connor Barrett, had lost three in a row. Landon decided Friday’s 43rd annual Jesuit Cup matchup against St. Ignatius — a game charged with emotion and meaning for both programs — was the moment things needed to change.

“Since Connor was our leading scorer, teams think now that they can take over and do what they want to us, so I wanted to prove everybody wrong,” Landon said. “During warmups, during stretches, I just knew I had to have a straight business mindset to get this done.”

In front of a rowdy crowd at Northwestern — albeit slightly rowdier on the St. Ignatius side — Landon did just that.

The senior guard scored 16 points and eight rebounds, set up 6-8 big man Bennett Kwiecinski on many of his game-high eight baskets and helped Loyola scrape out a 56-46 win.

“Landon was the player of the game for us,” Ramblers coach Tom Livatino said. “He controlled the game, he was aggressive off the dribble, he scored when he needed to, he let the game come to him and did a good job on defense, too. … Sometimes when guys go out, it’s the next man up, and he seems to have really ran with that.”

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Loyola (18-9, 8-5 Catholic-Blue) scored the first nine points of the game and led 27-10 at halftime, at which point St. Ignatius (11-14, 2-10) had made only three field goals.

But the Wolfpack then, finally, found their rhythm. Star guard Christian Davis scored nine of his 16 points in the second half, off-the-bench sparkplug John Digenan scored all 10 of his after the break and St. Ignatius cut the deficit to as little as seven points in the final minutes. For a while, a repeat of last year’s drama — in which the school from the city rallied from 17 down to nearly win at the buzzer — seemed possible.

Kwiecinski (24 points) and senior guard Quinn Pemberton (eight points), however, hit almost all their free throws down the stretch to seal the victory.

Coach Matt Monroe, whose Wolfpack have now lost eight of nine, said his team needed to get going sooner offensively not only to keep the score closer, but also give the struggling squad a reason to keep the faith.

“When some our shots didn’t fall … we started to search off the bounce instead of using our screening and ball movements for open looks,” he said. “The thing that would’ve really changed the game for us would’ve been if we had hit some of those open shots. That would’ve given us more confidence.”

Instead, it was Loyola celebrating with the snazzy, silver Jesuit Cup trophy after the game for the third consecutive year and 25th time since it debuted 1977 (St. Ignatius, by comparison, has won it 18 times).

Livatino said he read out letters from 45 different alumni to his squad over the past week to emphasize the importance of this rivalry. His strategy clearly worked. The Ramblers snapped their losing skid with an all-around thorough performance, living up to the intense atmosphere and Big Ten arena in which they played.

“It’s about … the culture that we try to embody,” Kwiecinski said. “We’re playing for all the people that have graduated in the past.”

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