PHILADELPHIA — The ride is getting more and more absurd, more and more implausible.
First-seeded Saint Peter’s defeated second-seeded Kentucky, a national title contender. Next, the Peacocks beat No. 7 seed Murray State, the mid-major dynamo with a 21-game winning streak. Big Ten powerhouse Purdue, the third seed in the Eastern Region, joined the roster on Friday night.
The Peacocks have become history, not just in college basketball, but in all of sports. The small Jersey City school with an enrollment of 2,100 students methodically killed sports giants.
” And that ? Peacocks coach Shaheen Holloway said a smile on the face of the rising coaching star.
As wild as this race has been, as unpredictable and unexpected, astonishing and surprising, and utterly mystifying as it has become, it can improve. Saint Peter’s, the 15th seed, can reach the pinnacle of the college basketball world, the Final Four in New Orleans, with one more win. It can become the lowest seed to reach the national semifinals and the first New York-area team to do so since Seton Hall in 1989.
“It’s unthinkable, unreal,” said senior striker KC Ndefo. “Just to do this, to write the history of this program, to put Jersey City on the map, to do this for our fans and our family, is just an unthinkable thing to do.”
Now another powerhouse awaits, another team with bigger, bigger and supposedly better players. North Carolina may be an eighth seed on paper, but the Tar Heels haven’t played that way in two months. They have won 15 of their last 18 games. That includes a 13-point win in Duke coach Mike Krzyzewski’s final game at Cameron Indoor Stadium and back-to-back tournament wins over No. 1 seed Baylor and No. 4 seed UCLA. two Final Four teams a year ago. .
North Carolina, an 8.5-point favorite, features a big leading man (Armando Bacot), two dynamic guards (Caleb Love and RJ Davis) and scoring depth – four players who can all go for 25 points every night – a few teams own it.
Then again, Saint Peter’s was not supposed to be able to play with Kentucky. Murray State was expected to cross. Purdue was going to be too much, with its size and shooting ability. The Peacocks seemed more comfortable on the big stage.
“I’ve said this throughout the tournament, these guys really play with their chip on their shoulder, and some of these guys that were sitting here right now feel like they belong in schools like that,” Holloway said. “So this is their opportunity to show their talent and show what they can do.”
Saint Peter’s dispatched every favorite opponent the same way: wearing them down with their pressure defense and depth. The Peacocks hit clutch shots, were nearly perfect from the free throw line and executed better at critical time. In two of the games, against Kentucky and Purdue, they trailed far in the second half. The peacocks were on the ropes, but they didn’t blink.
They outscored Purdue 15-8 in Friday’s 4:02 final. They had a 13-6 advantage over the final 4:25 against Murray State. In the win over Kentucky, Saint Peter’s outscored the Wildcats 22-11 in the final 7:58 minutes, including overtime.
“It starts right from the start of the game with our pressure on the defense,” sniper Doug Edert said. “We just wear people out. So at the end of the game, they’re exhausted, and I feel like our willpower is way more advanced, and we want that so badly.
“When it comes to the end of the game where it’s like we win this game or go home, we refuse to go home.”
The bond that this team has forged is of course part of it. The group – Ndefo and juniors Edert, Fousseyni and Hassan Drama, Daryl Banks III and Matthew Lee – have been together for three years. They are used to closing games, with 11 of their 22 wins decided in the single digits this season. Due to COVID-19, they frequently vacationed side by side. Holloway called them a “close-knit family”. After each game on the road, the team has a tradition of receiving milkshakes. With the school’s meager budget, the Peacocks travel by bus to most of their games.
“When you’re on a team where no one cares about success and they’ve grown together for three or four years, they understand what’s at stake, they go out and play for each other,” said Holloway. “I think that’s what’s happening right now.”
The Peacocks live on, that unsung group of underdog players who put Saint Peter’s and Jersey City on the map. They keep hearing that this magic race is coming to an end and they keep ignoring the pundits and analysts.
“We want it more than [other] guys, and it shows on the pitch,” Ndefo said.
This determination and self-confidence has brought them this far. Why not to New Orleans?
“It’s a dream,” Holloway said. “I don’t want to wake up, and these guys don’t want to wake up.”
New York Post