Josh Verlin (@jmverlin)
From the beginning, whether they intended to or not, Saint Peter’s made a statement.
The tiny school from Jersey City became one of the biggest stories in the NCAA Tournament, one of those squads people will talk about decades from now, reminiscing about the time the No. 15 seeded Peacocks beat the likes of Kentucky and Purdue en route to becoming the lowest seed ever to advance to the second weekend of March Madness, much less win a third game and make the Elite 8.
It was a run every mid-major school dreams of in countless offseason workouts and preseason practices, during the cold January grind of bus trips and boxed meals, playing in small gyms without the luxuries of the Power 5 conferences and their ilk. Much has been made about the school’s miniscule athletics budget, its Run Baby Run Arena, its collection of underdogs and afterthought recruits who took down All-Americans and future pros.
So even though the run ended on Sunday, 69-49, at the hands of a powerful North Carolina squad loaded with five-star prospects, the bunch of who-are-theys turned household names no doubt inspired just about every low-to-mid-major program around the country, who all see themselves doing the same thing next March.
“The sky's the limit for anybody,” senior forward KC Ndefo said. “If you put in the work, success and all of it is going to be behind it. So don't get too high, don't get too low. Just stay in your lane, and it will work out for you.”
KC Ndefo (above) is one of only two seniors on the Saint Peter's roster, from a rotation that went 10 deep. (Photo: Mark Jordan/CoBL)
All the magic Saint Peter’s had been playing with in March, from its run through the MAAC tournament to beating Kentucky, Murray State and Purdue within a span of nine days, was unfortunately nowhere to be seen at Wells Fargo Center on Sunday afternoon.
Playing against a Tar Heels squad that possessed a similar advantage in size, athleticism and pedigree that they’d seen against the Wildcats and Boilermakers, the Peacocks came out getting the shots they wanted but quickly found them disappearing. A couple missed layups didn’t help, but in the end, wouldn’t have mattered much.
Saint Peter’s shot just 30% from the floor and 4-of-16 (25%) from 3-point range, got out-rebounded 49-33, never once had the lead. UNC’s defense was overwhelming, swarming, prepared, focused. The Peacocks, which had done such a terrific job of controlling games and managing runs all tournament long, were at the Tar Heels’ whims much of the evening.
Their fans kept the energy level up until the end, the Peacocks lingering on the court after the final buzzer to a standing ovation from the thousands there to cheer them on, a consolation prize they weren’t seeking but were thankful for anyways.
After the loss, disappointed though they were, the Saint Peter’s leaders were able to appreciate what they’d done, the history they’d made, the thousands of fans they’d converted across the country, a community energized by a group of Peacocks no one saw coming.
“It was amazing,” junior guard Daryl Banks III said. “Peacock Nation have been amazing for us on this run. It was just a great atmosphere for us. Like it's been this whole tournament. We've got a lot of support. And just to do what we did, it's just incredible.”
Shaheen Holloway (above) instilled a terrific sense of confidence and comraderie within his program. (Photo: Mark Jordan/CoBL)
The sting of losing, though, was still clear on all their faces.
“I really thought we were going to win this game,” head coach Shaheen Holloway said. “I'll be honest with you. No disrespect to them.
“I didn't really recognize my team the first ten minutes of the game. I thought we came out a little slow, a little timid. Give those guys credit, they came in and jumped on us early.
“I thought we had a good game plan. I don't know. (We) were a bad team today.”
That confidence is no joke, the Peacocks’ feeling like they belonged in the SEC or Big Ten a major reason why they never flinched against teams from those conferences even as they made their runs. But North Carolina was too good, its stars rising to the moment with some Final Four-worthy performances.
Armando Bacot, the powerful 6-10 forward with an NBA future, put together a monster 20-point, 22-rebound double-double, tying his career high on the glass. He had more offensive rebounds (8) than all of Saint Peter’s combined (7).
Brady Manek, the Paul Bunyan cosplayer and Oklahoma grad transfer who doubles as UNC’s stretch-big, knocked down four triples en route to a 19-point, eight-rebound outing, showing off a silky-smooth hook shot to boot.
Caleb Love, who scorched UCLA for 30 points on Friday, scored 12 of his 14 in the first half, his combination of speed and strength at the guard position making him a tough matchup for whoever was on him.
Armando Bacot (above) had 15 first-half rebounds en route to a massive double-double in the UNC win on Sunday. (Photo: Mark Jordan/CoBL)
“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 points at halftime. No one really dominated us like that before. He was kind of all over the place. Touched everything.
“Kind of wish we could play this game over. I would have done a couple things different. But like I said, you've got to give those guys credit. They came out and they deserved it.”
And so Cinderella met its midnight, somehow both later and earlier than anticipated, leaving a Final Four of Kansas, Villanova, UNC and Duke headed to New Orleans, no bracket spoiler still in the mix. Their run will net their school and the rest of the MAAC a nice bonus check from the NCAA, a sure uptick in undergraduate applications, and a bit more swagger on the court next fall. How deep those ripples will echo are still to be determined.
There's no doubt that Doug Edert and his mustache have entered NCAA lore, that Banks and Matthew Lee's shot-making will be remembered, as will Ndefo and Clarence Rupert's efforts inside; the Drame twins, Hassan and Fousseyni, and freshman guard Jaylen Murray, a sparkplug defender.
At the end of the day, Holloway was asked, what will you remember most about his team’s magical March?
“That 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,” Holloway said. “They shocked the world. 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. Saint Peter's did it. Period.
“Saint Peter's made it to the Elite Eight. Great story. You guys write about it.”