PHILADELPHIA — The historic run ended at the hands of one of the most storied programs in the history of college basketball.
Saint Peter’s, the first No. 15 seed to advance to the Elite Eight in the NCAA Division I men’s tournament, hit a wall in eighth-seeded North Carolina, making its 30th appearance in the round. The Tar Heels handled business early, running out to a quick lead as they cruised to a commanding 69-49 victory at the Wells Fargo Center.
UNC’s win was the 130th NCAA tournament victory for the program, setting a new all-time record and bringing a meeting with famed rival Duke in the Final Four.
“It means everything, because since I've been here, my first two years was just so tough,” junior Armando Bacot said. “People kind of pushed North Carolina to the side and saying how we were done and all this and that. And I'm just so glad to make it to the Final Four, finally, and kind of cement myself.
"We're not done yet.“
Brady Manek (45) got UNC off to a hot start with a pair of early 3-pointers, finishing with 19 points and 8 rebounds. (Photo: Mark Jordan/CoBL)
North Carolina burst out to a 9-0 lead to begin the game, as Saint Peter’s settled on its offense attempts. Hassan Drame finally put SPU on the board with a 3-pointer after over four minutes of play.
“I didn't really recognize my team the first 10 minutes of the game,” Saint Peter’s coach Shaheen Holloway said. “I thought we came out a little slow, a little timid. Give those guys credit, they came in and jumped on us early.”
The Peacocks couldn't get anything going on offense, and UNC got out to a lead that extended to as much as 21 in the first half.
Brady Manek was the key on offense for UNC early, the Oklahoma transfer, hit two 3s en route to him scoring 10 points by the under-eight timeout. His scoring continued throughout the game as he finished with 19 points (4-for-6 from deep).
On the other end, Saint Peter’s wasn't able to finish around the rim, missing multiple layups, a lob and a dunk. The Peacocks had chances to swing the momentum back in their favor — the crowd erupted as Doug Edert forced a jump ball with SPU down only 12-7 — but the offensive woes prevented any sort of traction from building.
Saint Peter’s shot 7-of-31 from the field with four turnovers in the first half (1-of-11 from 3-point range) as North Carolina countered the underdogs’ defensive effort to pull away.
“They hang their hat on punching teams in the mouth, being the underdog, that kind of thing,” UNC senior Leaky Black said. “We just had to let them know it wasn't going to happen tonight. That's pretty much it.”
One of the biggest issues for the Peacocks was the size disparity, and it showed up on the glass. North Carolina won the rebounding battle 49-33, led by Bacot.
The 6-10, 210 pounder dominated the boards in the matchup finishing with a 20-point, 22-rebound double-double, his rebounding mark tied a tournament record for the Tar Heels (Tyler Zeller vs. Ohio in 2012).
“Bacot is good, man,” Holloway said. “When you get 22 and 20, it's pretty impressive. He did a good job and he had 15 boards at halftime. No one really dominated us like that before. He was kind of all over the place. Touched everything.”
Armando Bacot (above) had a 20-point, 22-rebound double-double. (Photo: Mark Jordan/CoBL)
By halftime, Bacot had set the tone with 15 boards (five offensive); between him and the rest of UNC, they did an exceptional job of limiting the Peacocks to one shot.
Offensively, Caleb Love was driving UNC in the first half, so there wasn’t a sneaker change necessary, the sophomore had 12 points and three assists heading into the locker room, finishing with 14 points and four assists.
All three of those first-half assists went to the other major contributors for UNC. The first two went to Manek, and the third one was a pocket pass to Bacot who had all but secured another tournament double-double by halftime (8 points).
In the second half the Love-Bacot combination locked up Bacot’s double-double when Love found the big man on a roll and he finished with a layup.
And the rest of the half Bacot continued to exploit his size, dropping 12 points in the second frame of the game.
The Peacocks were able to improve from the field but just marginally. Going 11–for-29 in the second half and only got the score under a 20 point deficit once, when Daryl Banks III hit a 3-pointer with 7:41 remaining to cut the lead to 19.
Even so, there was enough separation by the 1:21 mark for the starters for both teams to be pulled, and the emotions came pouring out from both coaches.
“I feel like it was a good hug. We just didn't want to let go. It was a good little moment. Get my little pic with [Davis],” Black said about his embrace with UNC head coach Hubert Davis on the sideline.
Caleb Love (above) had 14 points for UNC after scoring 30 in the Elite 8. (Photo: Mark Jordan/CoBL)
North Carolina now moves on to New Orleans, where it will take on the second-seeded Duke on Saturday night at the Caesars Superdome. The Duke-Carolina rivalry is perhaps the most notorious in all of American sports with numerous high-stakes matchups, but the two teams have never met in March Madness before. This first time, in Davis’ first season, is coming in the Final Four, and — if that wasn’t enough — there’s some added motivation for UNC.
Hall of Fame Duke coach Mike Krzyzewski is retiring at the end of the season after taking the helm for the Blue Devils in 1980. The Tar Heels already spoiled one stop on the five-time champion’s farewell tour, downing Duke in Krzyzewski's last home game at Cameron Indoor Stadium earlier this month.They now have a chance to end it for good.
Davis isn’t quite worried about the specifics of the big-time matchup yet, but he can’t wait for his players to experience the pageantry of the Final Four, just as he did as a Tar Heels player in 1991.
“I am so happy for them right now,” Davis said. “... I know what they’re going to see and experience. I think we’re scheduled to leave on Wednesday — I’d like to leave tonight.”
The Cinderella run finally came to a close for Saint Peter’s, falling short of the team’s own Final Four hopes. Still, the Peacocks’ unprecedented performance over the last four games cemented their spot in history. The team will go home proud after reaching heights no other No. 15 seed has seen before.
“We're going to walk out of here the same way we walked in here,” Holloway said. “With our head up.”