Insanity. History. Ridiculous. Amazing.
Insert any word you want here, it won’t capture how incredible the Peacocks’ run has been, nor will it encapsulate the atmosphere of the Wells Fargo arena on Friday night, where the 15th-seeded Saint Peter’s Peacocks took down third-seeded Purdue to become the first team seeded lower than 12 to advance to the Elite Eight.
“The whole environment, it was just unreal,” Doug Edert said. “I don’t think any of us were nervous or really cared about how many people were there watching us. We just went out there and did our thing. We’ve been doing what we’ve been doing all season, which was defending and playing as hard as we possibly can. And then the emotions at the end, again, we’re making history and we look forward to making more history.”
And it wasn’t without drama. Unlike last game against Murray State in which it never trailed, Saint Peter’s found itself trailing most of the second half. From the 13-minute mark in the second half until about the three-minute mark, Purdue held the lead almost the entire time, stretching its advantage to four points on multiple occasions. A couple baskets the other way, and it might have fallen out of reach.
Instead, Saint Peter’s looked the part of a seasoned team that had done this countless times before. It never panicked and each time responded to Purdue’s baskets with timely baskets of their own.
Daryl Banks III made a floater that got a couple favorable bounces to give Saint Peter’s a two-point lead with just over two minutes to play. From there, the Peacocks stepped to the line several times and calmly sank each one of their free throws.
However, a couple of missed rebounds by Saint Peter's at the other end and subsequent Boilermaker putbacks allowed Purdue to stay in it. Jaden Ivey hit a very difficult triple with under ten seconds to go to bring Purdue back within one.
Edert, an excellent free throw shooter, didn’t panic. He hit his two free throws with four seconds to play and then watched as Ivey’s deep triple from near half-court clanged off the rim to send the stadium into a frenzy. The Peacocks are now improbably into the Elite Eight.
ITS NATIONAL PEACOCK DAY!!! SAINT PETERS TO THE ELITE 8!!! pic.twitter.com/3bwvVWlAp5— Georgia Frontiere hater (@garrettcarrot12) March 26, 2022
Edert held his emotions in check at the end of the game, but not after the game. He jumped up on the scorer’s table.
Purdue, which had their sights set on their first Final Four in over forty years, were upstaged by one of the biggest Cinderellas this tournament has seen.
“I thought [the Peacocks] were excellent today in their effort,” Boilermaker coach Matt Painter said. “They beat us like they beat the other two teams. They had a strong will, grimy, tough, into you, and Shaheen Holloway has done an unbelievable job there at Saint Peter’s.”
The Peacocks played 10 men and got scoring from nine of them. Daryl Banks III led the way with 14 and drew five fouls. Freshman and Philly native Clarence Rupert added in 11 – well above his average of 4.7 points per contest. Edert finished with 10 points, despite making only one basket from the field.
Right from the jump, it was apparent that the Peacocks had come to play. On the very first possession of the game, a huge roar erupted from the Saint Peter’s faithful as the Peacocks stole the ball from Zach Edey, who was expected to cause them trouble on the inside with his 7-foot-4-inch frame.
The Boilermakers quickly got out to a 7-2 lead, but big buckets by Rupert kept the game from getting away early. He scored the Peacocks’ first seven points, and SPU took their first lead at 11-10.
One thing was for sure for the Peacocks – they weren’t about to let Edey and Trevion Williams just run them over inside. Almost every time they threw it into the big men in the first half, there was a guy coming to help from the weak side to disrupt the drive and force a kickout. More noticeably, there were Peacocks pushing the big men far from the basket, and using their length to jump the passing lanes and tp block shots. They forced six steals and blocked three shots in the first 20 minutes.
“That was part of our game plan,” guard Matthew Lee said. “Coach preached to us and we saw on film that when they catch the ball deep in the post, it’s hard to stop them. They’re two of the best bigs in the country, and we just did our job and pushed them out.”
Perhaps even more impressive was their defense on Ivey, who never really got it going. The NBA prospect scored just nine points and turned the ball over six times.
“I think they just did a good job of bottling him and trying to force him to make tough passes and tough plays and contested shots,” Boilermaker senior Sasha Stefanovic said. “But give them credit, they game planned well and they did a good job.”
Despite the strong defensive first half performance on Purdue’s stars, the Boilermakers still hit half of their shots and outrebounded the Peacocks by seven. Purdue extended the lead to six at 33-27 on a basket by Stefanovic with 18 seconds in the first half.
The Peacocks’ Jaylen Murray countered by probing the defense on the last possession of the half before quickly darting through the trees to make a tough layup at the buzzer to give Saint Peter’s a bit of momentum heading into the locker room.
The Peacocks parlayed that momentum into eight consecutive points to start the second half. Momentum appeared to be on their side when, with a four-point lead, they pushed Trevion Williams 10 feet behind the arc and forced Ivey into an airball at the shot clock buzzer. Purdue fought right back with baskets on four consecutive possessions to go up by four themselves.
Saint Peter’s never backed down, tying the game thanks in part to a couple of difficult threes by Lee and Isiah Dasher. But Purdue seemed to find a bit more of a groove inside, with the guards breaking down the defense and drawing help to allow post passes to Edey and Williams. Edey finished with 11 points, and Williams came alive in the second half to record 16 points and eight rebounds.
Purdue found itself up, 56-52, with about five minutes to play. Edert had a couple of chances to cut into the lead some but missed the front end of a one-and-one and a driving layup.
Holloway somehow kept his cool down the stretch.
“That’s what we’ve been the whole year,” he said. “That’s who we are. We’re not a team that’s going to blow teams out. That’s not our DNA. We try to keep it close and try to make them make mistakes down the stretch. Once again, like I said — first of all let me say, Coach Painter is a great coach, great program. They do an unbelievable job. But when you’re playing against teams like that who’s supposed to win, when you keep it tight, certain things can happen.”
The Peacocks overcame a limited performance from one of their emotional leaders, KC Ndefo, who battled foul trouble all game. The three-time MAAC defensive player of the year finished the game with just four points, three rebounds and no blocked shots in just over 18 minutes. In his absence, the Peacocks kept up the defensive pressure throughout the night, especially in the post, with a next-man-up mentality.
The Drame twins hounded the Purdue bigs all night. Offensively, they finished with 12 points between them, and in the clutch final minutes, Hassan Drame pulled down a huge offensive rebound late with Saint Peter’s up two.
The Peacock came through in the waning stages of the game. Banks hit his tough runner and some free throws. Edert, Lee and Drame made their free throws, and the rest was history.
Saint Peter’s has now taken down three huge programs in the NCAA Tournament. Many speculated that this would be the toughest test, given Purdue’s incredible size, abnormal even for most major programs.
“If you watched us play the last month, like we’ve been locked in - like really locked in,” Holloway said. “Teams in our league are really good. [Tonight] wasn’t one of our best defensive performances. I know you might say I’m crazy for saying that, but if you watched us play, then you would know that it’s not.”
The atmosphere was incredible from start to finish. The Peacocks seemed at least 10,000 strong if not more. Jersey City, described all week as a strong, tough-nosed community by Holloway, came out stronger than ever (with the help of UNC and UCLA fans, of course.)
“I can’t believe the support that we’re having,” Holloway said. “This is unbelievable. Jersey City has been unbelievable for us. But I want to give a shout-out to our student-athletes and the whole student body. They’re taking buses down here, they’re doing videos, watch party. It’s been tremendous. I’m happy for the school and the community and everybody involved. It’s been great.”
An improbable Elite Eight date with yet another blue-blood awaits. Eighth-seed North Carolina is playing its best basketball of the year. Still it feels like, given the teams Saint Peter’s has defeated to reach this point, there’s no reason why it couldn’t do it again.
“We’re happy, but don’t mistake, we’re not satisfied,” Edert said. “We’re not satisfied at all. The job is not finished. We feel like we belong, and the more games we win, the more confidence we build. We have a great amount of momentum going into the next game and we’re going to play as hard as we can just like we did all season to keep doing what we’ve been doing.”
Saint Peter’s to the Final Four? Before the tournament, it seemed impossible. Now, it’s right there for the taking.