Put your hand down. You didn’t pick it in your bracket. You probably knew little about Saint Peter’s University in Jersey City, its basketball program and its coach Shaheen Holloway, who has turned into an overnight sensation.
And it’s hard to blame you for it. The tiny Jesuit school has about 3,000 students. The men’s basketball team had made three appearances in the tournament over 30 years, bowing out meekly three times.
On Thursday night, the Peacocks – far from one of the popular upset picks – pulled off one of the biggest shockers in tournament history.
“No disrespect to anybody, but we wasn’t coming down here just to lose,” Holloway said after the game. “We were coming down here fighting.”
So often when a little guy knocks out a giant, the team builds a big lead off of uncharacteristic poor play by the favorites. Often times, you can tell that their opponent didn’t give them the proper respect, the lack of urgency sometimes is a dead giveaway that they were looking ahead to next week.
But you got the feeling when you were watching this one that there wasn’t anything fluky about this victory. It seemed like Saint Peter’s somehow had the horses to run with Kentucky.
Think about the Kentucky roster, loaded with blue-chip recruit after blue-chip recruit. They’ve got player of the year and monster of a man Oscar Tshiebwe on their team.
Tiny Saint Peter’s battled it out with them all night, and somehow only lost the rebounding battle by one single board. They only turned the ball over two more times. In the categories where little guys are usually dominated and worn out after 40 minutes, the Peacocks were right there with the Cats.
KC Ndefo, typically one of the team’s leaders who had a bit of an off night, explained how that was the mindset going in.
“We knew that they want to rebound, they have a lot of guys that can rebound the basketball, so we just had to box out, stand our ground and fight down there,” he said.
Earlier in the day, we saw Longwood play 10 tough minutes against Tennessee before getting blitzed. We saw Georgia State play Gonzaga even for almost 30 minutes, for which they deserve all the credit in the world and more. But suddenly it looked like they had no gas left; they had a big man foul out and in short order were severely overmatched. Gonzaga went on a little spurt and there was no coming back.
But at no point did Saint Peter’s look overmatched. Even in overtime, when after 40 plus minutes of a back and forth game – when any team could use fatigue as an excuse – they didn’t back down when Kentucky scored the first four points of overtime.
Make no mistake, the Peacocks certainly played better than they normally do. They hit more than half of their 3-pointers and their shots overall. Kentucky did not shoot quite as well, and left a few points at the free throw line. But it didn’t seem like the Peacocks had to play out of their mind to get to a position to win at the end.
There were a couple of times where it seemed like it would start to slip away from SPU. With four minutes to play, Kentucky used a quick burst to go up by six points. It would have been almost typical to see Saint Peter’s miss a couple of shots, Kentucky hit a big shot and some free throws and have the narrative be “what a fight this team put up, but in the end, Kentucky was too much.”
But this wasn’t a typical game, of course. The defense got stops. Darryl Banks – whose hot shooting kept Saint Peter’s in it early – responded with a layup, before another layup by Hassan Drame pulled it within two. Then Doug Edert, a sharpshooter who was so clutch late, drilled a three to give Saint Peter’s an improbable lead late.
Kentucky responded with a three under a minute to play, but Doug Edert was there again, getting a tough floater to rim in, before a huge defensive stop on the other end forced overtime.
“My coach was making great play calls towards the end of the game,” Edert said postgame. “I love that he believes in me so much to take those kinds of shots, my teammates do a great job of setting screens and giving me good passes when I’m open, and I’m shooting with a lot of confidence.”
In overtime, Kentucky scored the first four points and again threatened to pull away. But the fantastically mustachioed Edert drilled another huge three, and fantastic ball movement led to another layup to put the Peacocks up for good.
It sets up an unlikely all-mid-major second round matchup between the Peacocks and another Kentucky team, the Murray State Racers. Both teams are trying to make their first Sweet 16, though the Racers have now advanced to the round of 32 seven times to Saint Peter’s one. If they can play like they just played again, and again, who knows what this team is capable of – but Holloway knows the right approach: one game at a time.
“That’s the most important game right now is Saturday,” Holloway said. “I’ll never let my guys look forward too far, we have to concentrate on the task at hand.”
The DraftKings line for the Saint Peter’s-Murray State game is Murray State (-8), O/U 130.