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NCAA Tournament: Relationship building key for Holloway, Saint Peter's

03/27/2022, 12:00am EDT
By Ty Daubert

Ty Daubert (@TyDaubert)

PHILADELPHIA — Shaheen Holloway couldn’t finish his thought. His Peacocks players wouldn’t allow it.

As the fourth-year Saint Peter’s head coach stood on the Wells Fargo Center court on Friday night for a postgame interview, junior guards Matthew Lee and Doug Edert ran up behind him and grabbed each arm. The rest of the team shortly followed suit, chanting as they surrounded Holloway and interrupted the television broadcast.

Minutes prior, the Peacocks became the first ever No. 15 seed to advance to the Elite Eight in the NCAA Division I men’s basketball tournament. The questions could wait; it was time to celebrate history.

“Those are once-in-a-lifetime moments,” Lee said. “We were just happy to be in that moment and obviously just letting it all soak in, and we were just happy to be around each other. We saw coach over there by himself, so we had to go mess with him a little bit.”

The moment was real. After outlasting third-seeded Purdue 67-64 in a Sweet 16 matchup, the celebration ensued as the Philadelphia crowd erupted for the Jersey City kids. The Saint Peter’s players wanted to enjoy the experience with their beloved coach. 

Shaheen Holloway on the court

Shaheen Holloway (above) at Saint Peter's Sweet 16 game. (Photo: Mark Jordan/CoBL)

On Saturday afternoon, Holloway had the chance to reflect on the shortened interview in a press conference the day before the Peacocks’ next matchup: a date with eighth-seeded North Carolina on Sunday evening in the East Region final.

“Last night, them coming into my interview was great,” Holloway said. “We're like that. We're for real. That's genuine, that's not for now. If you watch us, you come to our practice, you take bus trips with us, this is who we are. We're not changing because we're here. We're a tight-knit family.”

The scene after Friday night’s game had been developing for years. The relationships between Hollaway and his players have continued to build since he took over in 2018. 

Saint Peter’s has organized a tradition under Holloway of going out for milkshakes following road wins. Though the Peacocks haven’t been able to grab shakes during March Madness after an unsuccessful attempt in Indianapolis early on — “How did the Shake Shack close at 9:30?” Holloway joked — it became a team activity the players look forward to. 

Shaheen Holloway sits at a microphone

Shaheen Holloway (above) has developed a bond with his players that's helped fuel the Peacocks' Cinderella run. (Photo: Ty Daubert/CoBL)

In the past two seasons, the Peacocks have spent Thanksgiving, Christmas and New Year's together, COVID concerns keeping players from traveling home. Being with each other during times like the holidays has brought Holloway and his players closer together.

“When you start spending time like that and it's real and it's genuine,” Holloway said, “a bond happens, a connection happens. We spend more time with each other than we spend with our families.”

With Holloway establishing trust with his team off the court, it allows him to be tough when it comes to basketball matters. He’s the harshest critic in film sessions, and he’s not afraid to tell someone what they’re doing wrong during a game. Holloway can be stern, but his Peacocks know it’s only to push them toward success.

“He has your best interest at heart,” senior KC Ndefo said. “Just listening to the message, not the tone, that's all it is. He's a great, amazing coach and we're all together as a team. Just never getting down on yourself, and you know when that happens he's going to pick you up after. We don't worry about that too much.”

Holloway, a former Seton Hall standout, knows what players can handle and what they’ll respond to from experience. After four years in college, he played point guard professionally from 2000-2007 in seven different countries. Holloway retired from playing to pursue coaching after the birth of his daughter. He spent time at Iona then his alma mater before working his way toward being hired as the head coach at Saint Peter’s.

“I wanted to be a coach because somebody — a lot of people took a chance on me when it was so easy to go the other way,” Holloway said. “I wanted to be that guy to take a chance on some kids that people don't want or are kind of pushing away or got in trouble and need a second chance. That's kind of what I'm about.”

Shaheen Holloway on the court

Holloway's (above) focus on defense has led the Peacocks to become the first-ever No. 15 seed to make the Elite Eight. (Photo: Mark Jordan/CoBL)

Holloway and his team both bring that same mid-major, underdog edge. The coach exudes confidence from the sideline, seen on Friday as he pumped up the crowd during the game. Seeing a guy like that on the bench is a boost for the Peacocks players.

“You might have made a bad play or something, but you look to the sideline, you see somebody encouraging you and giving you kind words,” Lee said. “He's been here before, he's been a player, so he knows what we're going through, and it's kind of just easy to play for him.”

That’s a common sentiment for this Saint Peter’s squad; the players enjoy having Holloway at the helm. Demanding but encouraging, the Peacocks know what their coach expects from them and believe he can propel them forward, as long as they hold up their end of the bargain.

“It’s pretty easy (playing for Holloway),” Edert said. “All you really have to do is give 100 percent effort — and defend.”

And Saint Peter’s has definitely defended in this tournament. The Peacocks’ defensive effort fueled upsets over No. 2 seed Kentucky and No. 7 seed Murray State in the first two rounds, and it continued against Purdue.

Holloway schemed to limit 7-foot-4 center Zach Edey and the 6-10 Trevion Williams as the Boilermakers had a height advantage over Saint Peter’s. The Peacocks did that and more, forcing 14 turnovers and also holding all-Big Ten guard Jaden Ivey to only nine points.

As the defense led to yet another historic win, the Saint Peter’s players embraced on the court. During the excitement, Holloway was pulled aside for a conversation with CBS reporter Jamie Erdahl.

Lee first spotted Holloway with the headset on, and caught the attention of Edert and Ndefo. They knew what they had to do. 

“We’ve been through a lot with Coach Sha,” Lee said. “A lot of hard times, a lot of tough times, a lot of challenging times. We felt like, if we overcame so much, that there’s just no other choice than to show him love.”

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