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Saint Peter’s leaves incredible legacy with unforgettable strut to the Elite Eight

The Peacocks’ NCAA Tournament run comes to a tough end, but it was nothing short of magical while it happened

Syndication: The Record
Perhaps it’s overstated, but it’s true — the Peacocks are why we love March Madness.
William Bretzger-The Record / USA TODAY NETWORK

This is probably the game the general public was expecting when Saint Peter’s first took the floor against Kentucky last Thursday. The storyline will likely be that the Peacocks were overmatched, and that the Tar Heels finally figured out how to crack the spell that Kentucky, Murray State and Purdue should have — but, somehow, couldn’t.

That’s unfair to Saint Peter’s. The Peacocks earned more respect than that. They just didn’t play well Sunday.

“We’re obviously emotional at first because we’re all competitors. We expected to win the game. It didn’t go our way, though,” Peacocks guard Daryl Banks III said after the game.

That’s not to say that North Carolina isn’t the better team, or that the Tar Heels wouldn’t win eight or nine times out of 10 against this Saint Peter’s squad. From the start, it was clear the Heels had more talent and they were going to try and exploit that at every turn. They had more size at just about every single matchup on the floor. They had more speed. They had more shooters.

UNC jumped out to a 9-0 lead and had the Peacocks on the ropes early. Saint Peter’s woke up and scored the next five, and kept UNC in check for a while on the defensive end – but couldn’t buy a basket of their own. Banks had a wide open alley-oop that he left short. UNC (particularly Armando Bacot, who finished with 22 points and 20 boards) was grabbing offensive rebounds and getting foul calls at will. Not much went right for SPU in the first half. Even the SPU cheerleaders missed a couple hoists in the first media timeout.

Saint Peter’s let UNC take control of the game in a way that none of their prior opponents did. SPU never trailed in their prior three games by more than six points. Last night, they watched as North Carolina slowly stretched the lead further and further until they got to a 20-something point margin that they maintained virtually the entire rest of the way.

“I feel like we came out a little slow,” said SPU senior KC Ndefo, who finished with 10 points, seven rebounds and six blocks. “Our defensive intensity wasn’t up to par today. But like Coach said, we give a lot of credit to them. They’re a talented team, but today was on us.”

To be clear though, as much as the Tar Heels were able to dictate the game’s flow, the Peacocks did not play their best game. They were missing shots, and worse, they were usually taking bad ones. Often, they were able to get near the hoop, but Carolina’s size and athleticism inside meant the Peacocks would need to put difficult trajectories on their close-in shots. The Peacocks kept forcing them up anyway. Shot after shot agonizingly caromed off the backboard or rolled off the rim.

“We came out, we took three bad shots right away. Three terrible shots,” Saint Peter’s head coach Shaheen Holloway said postgame. “And it got them run outs. They got three easy baskets … and the next thing we know, it’s 6-zip, 9-2. Those are momentum swings.”

Banks, who scored 27 against Kentucky and 14 against Purdue, finished with just seven points. Doug Edert, who earned an NIL deal with his ‘stache and clutch shooting, netted just two points on zero made field goals.

The Peacocks didn’t beat themselves. They forced eight turnovers and only committed seven. Despite facing another heavy size disadvantage like they did against the massive Boilermakers, they blocked eight shots to UNC’s six. They only shot 10 free throws, but they made nine of them, true to character the last couple of weeks. And they fought with a grit that caused an entire nation to fall in love with them to begin with.

They did their best to get their hands on as many balls as they could, even though they racked up a few fouls doing so. Ndefo was going after every shot, even while in foul trouble. They pressed and trapped UNC for the full 94 feet, all the way to the bitter end.

The most obvious discrepancies in the box score are simply overall shooting and rebounding. Of course, this was in part a credit to UNC’s shot-making ability and interior play both on offense and defense, but it falls on Saint Peter’s as well. They hit 25-61 (41%) to SPU’s 18-60 (30%). UNC outrebounded them 49-33. Kentucky and Murray State didn’t come close to that margin. Purdue outrebounded them by 11, Saint Peter’s was able to neutralize them in other ways.

The lazy take is that Saint Peter’s was going to come back down to earth eventually, that they couldn’t sustain their performances for much longer. But for the most part, the Peacocks game planned and performed against previous opponents in a way that could be replicated. They didn’t just get super hot from deep, which is something you see from time to time when a team makes one shocking upset and bows out immediately after. They shot reasonably well, but won their games with defensive toughness, taking care of the basketball and crisp offensive sets to get good looks.

Saint Peter’s took down three great teams with that formula, and there was no team left in the field that you could point to and say: that team is way better than Kentucky. That team is way better than Purdue. On paper, any of the teams they’d beaten to this point, and the teams left standing would be favored if they played again tomorrow, sure. UNC is no exception, with all of their talent even if they are an underdog of sorts as an eight seed. But the Peacocks proved over the course of two weekends that they were more than what everyone expected.

And as a result, despite the incredible run, Ndefo, Banks and Holloway all had anguished looks on their faces in the postgame presser. Holloway’s facial expression especially had “we missed an opportunity and I’m ticked off about it” written all over it.

“I wasn’t great today. Really disappointed in myself. Have to make some more adjustments. I’m really not happy with that,” Holloway said. “It’s a very emotional time after a loss, a tough loss, and like I really thought we were going to win this game. I’ll be honest with you. No disrespect to them. I just thought we could match up with them pretty good.”

Had he said that after a first-round loss to Kentucky, anyone outside the program might have dismissed it as coach-speak. But not even two-weeks later, we know it’s legitimate. So it’s reasonable for them to be disappointed in their performance, because it’s reasonable to say that they were capable of performing to a level that could have seriously pushed the Tar Heels. They just didn’t do it tonight.

And the fact that you can even say something like that is remarkable in itself. The fact that Saint Peter’s University had played to a level that there were expectations against North freaking Carolina in the Elite Eight, is remarkable in itself.

A true Cinderella

Three hundred and fifty three of 358 teams saw their dreams of a National Championship die before the Saint Peter’s Peacocks saw theirs go. You have to say that to yourself a few times to believe it.

This team has set the standard by which true Cinderellas are to be measured. Not teams from bigger mid-major conferences, the sexy picks to win a game or two like the A-10 or the Mountain West.

The low-seed lines.

The teams that are supposed to get slaughtered right away. At one point, nobody thought 15 seeds could win games. Then they were winning games, getting to the Sweet 16 and mesmerizing us with swagger and grace, and this year, they finished 40 minutes from college basketball’s biggest stage.

Now any team from any conference – no matter how unheralded – can use the Peacocks’ run as a source of belief and inspiration. Someday, one of them will get a chance to push the boundary and our imaginations even further.

But beyond inspiring fellow Cinderellas, they inspired an entire fanbase and beyond.

“I’m a season ticket holder, so I’ve seen the team the whole year. It seems like it can’t get any better, but it still does,” John Krotulis, who played center and forward for the Peacocks from 1979-83, said. “Just watching how the team evolved, how there’s no superstar, and every game there’s a different player stepping up to make a difference.”

“They’re half the size of all the other teams that they’re playing, and they’re taking it to them,” said John Donaddio, who went to grad school at SPU. “I love it, I love their attitude, it’s so exciting.”

Two women, Lisa and Emily, sat courtside with their homemade Saint Peter’s Peacocks shirts. They screamed for every Peacock basket, and they didn’t even go to Saint Peter’s. They went to nearby Rutgers and fell in love with the way Saint Peter’s represented their beloved state of New Jersey.

“What an impressive run … we love them, go Saint Peter’s!” Lisa remarked.

Just before the Peacocks took the court, there was a cheer from the Saint Peter’s crowd, a specific kind of cheer urging their team forward towards what they knew was going to be a tough battle but one that could result in a truly incredible feat. In the waning minutes, when it became reality that the Peacocks would come up just short this time, there was a similar cheer, one that made clear that every single Saint Peter’s supporter knew that an incredible feat had already been achieved.

They brought delirium to the fanbase of their tiny school. They became heroes.

“You’re an inspiration to all of us,” Saint Peter’s grad Carol Connolly said. “We love the underdog.”

It’s really so hard to try and encapsulate just how impressive the Peacocks’ accomplishment was.

Let’s try one more: If Iona – who has developed into a MAAC power – came in here, led by legendary Rick Pitino, and made a run to the Elite Eight, it still would have been stunning. They would’ve been the first MAAC team to make it this far, after all.

This is Saint Peter’s. Even within their own conference, some of their coaches considered them an afterthought. You’ve read the stories by now about just how strapped for cash they are. You might’ve read the crazy testimonies that seem more suited for sitcoms than a college athletics program.

That team played three awesome games at the NCAA Tournament. That team made the Elite Eight. That team had a few of us dreaming, “man, if they can keep this up, could they really go all the way?”

Heck, despite being just 90 miles up the road, they couldn’t even afford to send a band to Philadelphia. Their pumped-up contingent consisted of just four cheerleaders and a few dance squad members. Media timeouts alternated between bellowing fight songs from the UNC band/huge cheerleading troupe and the few members of the Saint Peter’s spirit squad circling the court, yelling at the top of their lungs to get the crowd, from all fanbases in attendance, to join in with them.

It was clear Saint Peter’s wasn’t supposed to be here, but that made the moment even more cool. They got their opportunity – one that only March Madness could provide – and made the absolute most of it. The ultimate underdog story.

“A group of guys came in here no one gave a chance to, no one believed in, but the people in our locker room that’s in our program, administration, us, and made history. They shocked the world,” said Holloway. “You’ve got guys that’s going to be remembered for things that they could tell their kids and grandkids. It’s a story within a story. I’m super proud of these guys. They came in and made history. Point-blank, period. No one has done it. The last [New Jersey-based] team to [make the Elite Eight] was P.J. Carlesimo’s [1991 Seton Hall] team.”

“Saint Peter’s did it. Point-blank, period. I’m going to end it on that. Saint Peter’s made it to the Elite Eight. Great story. You guys write about it.”

We’ll be writing about this run for a long while to come.