If the Metro Atlantic Athletic Conference members believed Loyola College's recent surge was an aberration, they certainly are receiving a different message now.
The Greyhounds turned everybody into believers last night, when they out-dueled the league's classiest team, La Salle, 62-60, at Reitz Arena and stamped themselves as a contender in next weekend's conference tournament.
In a battle of defenses, Loyola (13-13, 9-6) won its fifth straight game and beat La Salle for the second time in 32 meetings and the first time since January, 1944.
The defeat deprived the Explorers of a shot at the MAAC's regular-season title and halted their four-game winning streak.
What did it all mean to the Greyhounds, who had lost 25 straight in the series?
"It sends a message to everybody in the league that we're for real," said guard Tracy Bergan, who had 15 points off the bench after yielding his starting spot because of a missed study hall.
"Everybody in the tournament has to look out for us now."
"They're the big cheese of the league," added Kevin Green, who had 18 points to lead the Greyhounds. "They really beat us kind of bad the first time, but we tried to do the things we've been doing lately and see what happened. This continues our momentum going into the tournament."
What Loyola has been doing lately is playing gritty, in-your-face defense, dominating the league's lesser lights and surprising the elite. It also has beaten front-running Manhattan (on the road) during a run of eight victories in 10 games.
That defense served the Greyhounds well down the stretch, when La Salle went 1-for-19 from the field. Jack Hurd had hit a three-pointer with Kevin Anderson's hand in his face and then converted a free throw for a 56-52 Explorers lead and 7:34 left to play.
From that point, La Salle did nothing right on offense, missing six free throws, including the front ends of two one-and-one chances and failing on five straight shots during the same sequence with a minute to go.
"It's frustrating to lose by two points, considering the shots we missed, the free throws we missed and the decisions we made," said Explorers coach Speedy Morris.
"We had control of whether we won or not and didn't do it. It wasn't like they shut us down. Randy [Woods] passed up an open three-pointer that would have put us up one and takes it inside. I don't understand that one."
The nation's most productive three-point shooting team (9.7 per game) went 4-for-27 from beyond the line, shot 36.4 percent overall and missed seven of 15 free throws.
Woods, third in the country with a 27.2 scoring average, was held to 17 by Green and Bergan.
"Up there [in Philadelphia], we gave them wide-open threes," Bergan said. "Here, we got hands in their faces. We stressed that all week."
Loyola broke away from a 58-58 tie on two free throws by Anderson (season-high 15 points) with 2:27 left, and Mike Malone and Anderson made one more apiece to clinch the victory.
Coach Tom Schneider received a post-game drenching after his biggest victory in three seasons. He didn't mind.
"It means we've beaten everybody in the MAAC now and won nine this year, more than in the first two seasons combined. This is a great confidence builder," he said.
Schneider said La Salle is still the team to beat in the tournament for the automatic berth in the NCAA field, but said: "Any of six teams could do something up there, and we're one of them. I feel good about the team and the tournament. It's going to be wild."