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The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

The miracle of Saint Peter’s: How Jersey City produced the most unlikely Sweet 16 team

McGinley Square Pub owner Angelo Hatzipetrou peeks out the door next to the banner he ordered. (Adam Kilgore/The Washington Post)
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JERSEY CITY — The banner arrived on special order Tuesday afternoon, in time for Beat The Clock Night at McGinley Square Pub, during which drafts cost $1 at 8 p.m. and increase in price one dollar every hour, an offer innumerable students down the block at Saint Peter’s University would not dare pass up. Angelo Hatzipetrou, the bar owner, draped the banner over the front windows. It read LET’S GO PEACOCKS in bold royal blue underneath an italicized phrase Hatzipetrou thought had a nice ring to it: Miracle on Montgomery St.

“I like it!” a man in a Saint Peter’s security uniform said while walking past on the sidewalk as Hatzipetrou gazed up at the banner.

“I’m on very little sleep right now,” Hatzipetrou said. “This is a historic moment for the state, for the city, for the neighborhood.”

A tiny Jesuit commuter school squeezed into a few blocks of a hardscrabble New York City suburb, Saint Peter’s last weekend became the most improbable Sweet 16 team in NCAA men’s basketball tournament history. It upset No. 2 seed Kentucky and No. 7 Murray State, earning the 15th-seeded Peacocks a 90-mile trip down the New Jersey Turnpike to Philadelphia, where Friday night they will face No. 3 seed Purdue.

In the opening rounds, America discovered senior forward KC Ndefo’s defensive menace, Coach Shaheen Holloway’s unmistakable Queens swagger and junior sharpshooter Doug Edert’s scraggily glorious mustache. The campus has basked this week as the country started to learn more about the school.

“For a lot of students who are at Saint Peter’s, they love the experience, the education,” Saint Peter’s President Eugene Cornacchia said in an interview. “But I think a part of them always thought, ‘I wish we were better known.’ Well, now everybody knows who we are.”

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The school website crashed Thursday night as Saint Peter’s played Kentucky. When tickets for the round of 16 went on sale Saturday, that site crashed, too, and the school’s allotment still sold out in 41 minutes. Saint Peter’s sold $40,000 in merchandise out of the bookstore, where the shelves empty soon after they fill. Online apparel orders have come from every corner of the country.

“Including from Kentucky,” Cornacchia said. “Which I think is a blast.”

On Tuesday afternoon, the entire team walked behind a podium packed with microphones, placed arms around one another and faced a bank of television cameras from every station in New York City plus ESPN. Cars honked as they passed players on the street, and professors asked players to pose for photos before class. Cornacchia bruised his right ring finger from clapping so much during the Kentucky game, and it took two days for the swelling and purplish hue to recede. When Ndefo walked into his Latin American studies class, his teacher revealed that as the seconds ticked down during their victory, he cried.

Maybe some people here can’t sleep, but others are trying not to wake up.

“It really didn’t hit me yet,” Holloway said. “I’m still living in the dream.”

The ultimate underdog team comes from the ultimate underdog school. By design, Saint Peter’s attracts and provides aid to students who are the first in their families to attend college. More than 70 percent of the 2,134 undergraduate students are minorities. More than 60 percent live off campus. Saint Peter’s sits deep in the city, hemmed in by a high school, tan-brick apartments and Bergen Avenue, which within one block houses an Egyptian market, a Jamaican fruit stand, a Dominican restaurant, a Mexican cafe, two pizzerias and a pawnshop. Modest rowhouses line Montgomery Street across from Run Baby Run Arena.

“Our basic function is to educate first-generation students, to give them opportunities they otherwise would not have,” Cornacchia said. “And also to instill in students a sense of purpose in serving the community and giving back in society. It’s wonderful to produce CEOs, millionaires, billionaires in this world. If we do that, we want to make sure those students that come from Saint Peter’s have a responsibility to make the world a better place.”

Purdue has about 41,000 undergraduate students. Saint Peter’s claims roughly 34,000 living alumni but “a lot more that aren’t living,” Cornacchia said. “We’re here 150 years.”

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A stream of students, alumni and locals poured into MacMahon Student Center on Tuesday afternoon seeking gear. A security guard at the front door directed them to a Starbucks stand. Kristyn Stukel, a food services employee at Saint Peter’s for the past 15 years, would greet them and walk them toward The Nest, the school’s merchandise shop, and offer a regretful explanation.

In both a bit of unfortunate timing and a sign of how unexpected the tournament success has been, The Nest is under construction. In the madness of the past four days, the shelves had been picked clean. All Stukel had left: a few XXL T-shirts, some small and medium polos and a couple of sweatshirts with an academic crest that left potential customers pursing their lips.

“They want the fighting Peacock,” Stukel said. “It’s great around here. They finally know who Saint Peter’s is. I have people I work with up the block who didn’t even know it was a college. I’m like, ‘How?’ ”

Alexandria Hall, a communications student from Turks and Caicos, walked to the Starbucks and purchased a light blue Sweet 16 T-shirt from a coming shipment. Stukel scribbled her order on a torn-out piece of notebook paper.

Hall had watched both games on large screens at Run Baby Run Arena. “Every single person that I knew on campus was there,” Hall said. It left her thinking it was the best thing that ever happened to Saint Peter’s.

“A lot of people don’t even know we exist, to be honest,” Hall said.

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Dequawn Johnson, a sophomore accounting major from Atlantic City, helped set up staging for the watch parties as part of his on-campus job. He will board one of the two buses taking students to Philadelphia. Like many Saint Peter’s students, Johnson is the first person in his family to attend college.

“A lot of people when they ask where our school is, or if they don’t know and they see it, they’ll be like, ‘There’s no way they’ll be able to do what we’re doing now,’ ” Johnson said. “They underestimate us. What I would say is, it doesn’t really matter how you look and all that. It’s not your presentation. It’s the heart that you have. Our basketball team, every game they go into, they fight. That’s why they are where they are right now.

“I would say: ‘Just keep overlooking us. We’ll just keep proving you wrong.’ That’s what we do.”

A synergistic toughness flows through Jersey City, Saint Peter’s and the Peacocks basketball team. Holloway grew up in the South Jamaica neighborhood of Queens and became one of the greatest New Jersey high school players as an undersized guard at St. Patrick’s. When he arrived at Saint Peter’s in 2018, he said, he realized “you got to understand the school and where’s it at.” He recruited players who reflect their school and its city.

“They’re playing with grit and tenacity, which is synonymous with the city,” Jersey City Mayor Steven Fulop said in a phone conversation. “We’re in this media market of New York City, and we’re across the river here. It’s very much an immigrant community, a working-class community, a blue-collar community historically. When you think about that team over there, they’re playing against much bigger programs and punching above their weight. I’d like to think that’s Jersey City’s story for a long time.”

Holloway provided a rallying cry for the region after the Peacocks beat Murray State. He was asked at a news conference how his players had overcome the physical mismatch they faced.

“I got guys from New Jersey and New York City,” Holloway replied. “You think we’re scared of anything?”

At home Sunday night, Marty Judge read a column in the Star-Ledger in which Steve Politi, the voice of New Jersey sports, suggested that someone should put Holloway’s quote on a billboard.

“I said, ‘Oh s---, I could do that,’ ” Judge said.

Judge owns a billboard company he founded 20 years ago. At 11 p.m. Sunday, he sat down at his laptop and designed a billboard with Holloway’s words. He digitally posted it in time for the Monday morning commute along on Route 4 in Englewood.

“I’m a small-business man, and I’m surrounded by big media corporations,” Judge said. “I could relate. I could relate to not being taken seriously.”

For years, Saint Peter’s played at Victor R. Yanitelli, SJ, Recreational Life Center, a field house built in 1975 at the cost of $6 million. It felt like a dingy high school gym and made the facilities at Metro Atlantic Athletic Conference foes Quinnipiac and Iona — not exactly powerhouses themselves — look like palaces.

Tom MacMahon decided that needed to change. MacMahon averaged 13.1 points off the bench for the 1968 Saint Peter’s team that beat Duke in the NIT, the biggest win in school history until last week. He served as chairman and CEO of medical diagnostic giant LabCorp and became both a trustee and the school’s largest benefactor.

The school upped the basketball budget to hire Holloway’s assistant coaches. Saint Peter’s wanted to build new athletic facilities, too, but it also needed a new student center and classroom upgrades. Three years ago, Holloway sat in a meeting with trustees and university officials and made his pitch to expedite a new arena. “I’ll get the players,” he told the decision-makers. “You just have to get me a better facility.”

Holloway identified recruits who fit his personality: tough and overlooked kids from the metro area. He landed Daryl Banks, Edert, twins Fousseyni and Hassan Drame and Matthew Lee, the recruiting class that became the core of the current roster. As MacMahon watched them play, he felt greater urgency to finish the arena, so those players could play in it. When the pandemic emptied campus, it provided a chance to speed construction.

The refurbished arena came with a catch: Last season, the renovation left the Peacocks with no facility at all. They played games at John J. Moore Athletics and Fitness Center at New Jersey City University and bused 15 minutes every day to practice, usually at Marist High in Bayonne, a tiny gym with no shot clock.

“Try that if you’re Duke or North Carolina or UCLA,” said Bob Hurley, a Saint Peter’s alumnus and legendary retired high school coach at St. Anthony’s in Jersey City. “They went to a vocational high school to practice the whole year. But you know what? That just adds to the folklore.”

“It was humbling,” Holloway said. “I don’t want to say nothing bad about the place, because they definitely did us a favor. But where we was practicing, there was no heat in there.”

Holloway forbade players from gathering in indoor spaces, and the team still wears masks at practice. During the past week, he has repeated that games are easy for the Peacocks compared with their practices. Hassan Drame sported a bandage over his right eye against Murray State because he had caught a stray elbow from a teammate.

“Our practice is like a war,” he said.

Friends and fellow administrators keep telling Cornacchia about “the glow,” the effects the basketball team’s starburst will have on the rest of the school.

Like many schools, Saint Peter’s has seen its student body shrink during the pandemic. It wants to boost admissions and continue its growth in postgraduate students, hoping for 2,500 undergraduates and 4,000 total students, with about 50 percent living on campus. A storage facility across the street from McGinley Square Pub is under construction, being turned into a six-story dorm. The school draws students almost exclusively from New York, New Jersey and Pennsylvania.

“But not for long!” Cornacchia said, smiling as he pounded a desk. “They’re hearing about us. It is priceless advertising for us. We couldn’t afford to push ourselves out nationally like that.”

The school president at Oral Roberts, which reached the Sweet 16 as a No. 15 seed last year, contacted Cornacchia to offer advice on how to maximize “the glow.” Cornacchia has heard from school presidents he has never met. His thousands of emails and texts include messages from an educator from Italy and a basketball fan in Japan.

But the interaction that meant the most for Cornacchia was hearing from MacMahon.

MacMahon’s 1968 team led the nation at more than 90 points per game. “We were a little school that scored a lot,” MacMahon said. They grew famous locally for their frantic pace and earned the nickname Run Baby Run. When MacMahon donated $5 million toward an upgraded facility, he had one stipulation: It had to be named Run Baby Run Arena.

When CBS showed the watch party inside the arena Thursday night, the entire country saw the nickname for his old team flash on the bottom of the screen. It felt surreal.

MacMahon loves Saint Peter’s and sees it as the place that gave him his start in life, a perfect Jesuit school whose mission has remained true. When he arrived on campus in 1964, most of the students were first-generation college students, too. The most striking quality he has observed in his fellow alums is loyalty to their school, those couple of blocks on Montgomery Street that launched a basketball miracle.

“It’s their little piece of heaven,” MacMahon said. “We don’t have a lot, but we’re proud of what we have.”

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