A year ago, they were Cinderellas.
As players on Loyola’s endearing underdog Final Four team, Donte Ingram, Aundre Jackson and Ben Richardson became March sensations with game-winning shots and improbable victories.
Now they are learning about the march of time. Everyday college routines, such as practice, have become nostalgia. New bodies filled their roster spots as they became sports history.
“It’s weird,” said Richardson, who scored 23 points to help beat Kansas State in the Elite Eight. “You had your whole life invested in something and you stopped doing it, but it’s still going on. I still imagine what practices are like. I ask (former teammate) Clay (Custer), ‘What’s Coach saying today?’ “
Their absence certainly was felt this season as Loyola failed to earn an NCAA Tournament invitation.
But the trio who exhausted their eligibility with last season’s Ramblers are mostly consumed with chasing new dreams.
Where are they now? The Tribune talked to Ingram, Jackson and Richardson to find out what a year removed from the glitz of the Final Four feels like.
At Loyola, he wore sneakers with “FINAO” (failure is not an option) inscribed on them as an homage to a friend who had died and as a motivator to chase his goals.
Ingram has worn them about five times this season in the NBA G League with the Texas Legends, and his mantra is apt.
“FINAO is a motto I live by every day,” he said in an email. “For me, failure isn’t an option. I’m determined to keep improving as a person and player to reach my goals in life.”
Ingram became one of the most recognizable faces of last season’s NCAA Tournament when he hit a long buzzer-beating 3-pointer for a 64-62 victory against No. 6 seed Miami to start the 11th-seeded Ramblers’ wild run.
He worked out for several NBA teams but went undrafted. The Bulls signed him to their Summer League roster. Ingram signed with the Mavericks on Oct. 8, 2018, but was waived three days later and added to the roster of the Mavs’ G League affiliate.
He’s averaging 3.6 points and 2.2 rebounds in 41 games for the Legends entering Saturday’s season finale. Ingram enjoyed his best game March 12 against the Oklahoma City Blue when he scored a season-high 15 points, all on 3-pointers.
“The biggest challenge has been (waiting for) your name (to be) called,” he said. “You never know what can happen. One game you can be a starting player, (playing) 25 minutes, and in the next game you could be coming off of the bench playing 10 to 15. You have to make the most of your minutes and be as productive as you can. Mental toughness is key when there’s so many factors in the professional business that you can’t control.”
It’s not unusual for Ingram to be identified as a former Loyola star.
“I get recognized a lot more than I thought I would in a different state,” he said. “The most random for me was an unexpected fan at the mall while I was shopping wearing a Loyola shirt. She recognized me and talked to me briefly, and it’s just little reminders like that reminding how special last year was.”
What can Jackson say about his small town in Iceland? “The people are nice,” he offered. “It’s probably warmer than Chicago.”
Jackson, a 6-foot-5 forward, joined Skallagrimur in Borgarnes, Iceland, after offseason knee surgery. He made a name for himself at Loyola as a selfless sixth man who set the program’s career record with 62 percent field-goal shooting.
He scored a team-high 16 points against No. 3 seed Tennessee in last season’s 63-62 second-round victory.
“I told the (team in Iceland), I’ll be on track for the season,” he said. “They said I had three practices to showcase myself. If they did not like what they saw, they’d send me back.”
He led his team with 19.9 points and 8.3 rebounds per game. Jackson said foul calls are rare and opponents target him as one of the more recognizable American players.
“It’s kind of like bully ball,” he said. “Sometimes I get out of whack. I just try to stay focused.”
When he first arrived, some of his teammates asked if they could buy his Final Four backpack.
When his girlfriend visited, Jackson visited the Blue Lagoon, a popular geothermal spa located in a lava field in southwestern Iceland. He said he asks Loyola senior Marques Townes to play the online video game Fortnite almost daily.
He visited his home state of Texas around Christmas and spent some time off in February in Chicago, taking in a Loyola game.
“I’ve been homesick,” Jackson said. “I talk to my mom every day.”
His season recently completed, Jackson hopes to get picked up by a team in a country with more a competitive league, such as Spain, Germany or Japan.
“My goal is to play in the U.S., the NBA, of course,” he said. “I’m focused on basketball. But I’m excited to see the rest of the world if I have to bounce around from country to country.”
Even in Poland, a basketball fan on occasion will recognize Richardson or notice him wearing a Loyola shirt and ask the inevitable question.
“‘I loved the nun,'” he said fans tell him. “They ask about Sister Jean a lot.”
A starter for MKS Dabrowa Gornicza, Richardson averages 10.1 points and 3.4 rebounds at point guard and is helping his team make a push for the playoffs.
Anyone who watched him score a career-high 23 points on 70 percent shooting in Atlanta to help the Ramblers beat Kansas State 78-62 and qualify for the Final Four isn’t surprised by Richardson’s pro numbers, despite his reputation as a defensive specialist at Loyola. Named most outstanding player of last year’s NCAA South Region, Richardson is shooting 51.6 percent in Poland and 39.6 percent on 3-pointers.
“My year so far has been solid,” he told the Tribune in a recent phone interview. “I tried to come in with an open mind and learn and enjoy the experience as much as I could.”
He applies that off the court too.
Instead of holing up in his apartment, Richardson has embraced learning about another culture. He hasn’t picked up much Polish, but he enjoys meeting locals, trying new foods and taking 45-minute trips to Krakow.
“I like getting out of my comfort zone,” he said.
He also visited Auschwitz.
“It was one of the most powerful experiences,” he said. “You know about it from history books, but nothing compares to seeing it in person and standing on the ground.”
Richardson has a one-year deal with his club in Poland. Like Jackson, he hopes to jump to a higher level of competition next season.
Besides supporting former Loyola teammates this season through texts, he had another message for the veterans.
“You tell the older guys, ‘You’re going to miss it,’ ” he said.