PHILADELPHIA — They did not come here to be anybody’s cuddly underdog, to be the small school with the funny mascot for America’s amusement, to bask in the NCAA tournament spotlight one more time. The Peacocks of Saint Peter’s came to the Sweet 16 to hound point guards 94 feet, to make life living hell for NBA prospects, to fly around the court and hear an arena chant their names. They didn’t come here to play a basketball game. They came to win the damn thing.
When Purdue’s final shot bounced off the rim, Coach Shaheen Holloway raised his arms over his head and strode on to the court, gazing into the Saint Peter’s cheering section. Peacock players reached over and stood atop press row to embrace the delirious supporters who come down the Turnpike from Jersey City. Junior Matthew Lee held up both hands, one outstretched and the other forming a circle with his thumb and index finger: eight.
A dozen or so of the 2,134 undergraduate students who attend Saint Peter’s made history Friday night at Wells Fargo Center. The Peacocks, champions of the Metro Atlantic Athletic Conference, became the first 15 seed to reach the Elite Eight. They added third-seeded Purdue, along with Kentucky and Murray State, to the list of giants they slew with a 67-64 victory over the Boilermakers.
Saint Peter’s, the third 15 seed to reach the regional semifinals and the first to do it from a Jesuit school nestled into three Jersey City blocks, stood eye-to-eye — okay, eye-to-chin, in most cases — with the Boilermakers and never flinched, never budged, never went away.
“We know we’re just as good as any team in the country,” Lee said.
Who would argue with him? The Peacocks are not only candidates for the greatest story in the wild and wonderful history of the NCAA tournament. They are also a menacingly aggressive and strikingly poised basketball team in the image of Holloway, the tenacious and brilliant young coach reared in the same New Jersey and New York City region so many of his overlooked and underrecruited players come from.
They turned Purdue’s two leading scorers, future NBA top-five pick Jaden Ivey and 7-foot-4 center Zach Edey, inside-out. They weathered the second-half interior scoring binge of Purdue backup center Trevion Williams. They didn’t turn the ball over. They made their free throws. They wrapped their arms around one another during timeouts. There are only eight teams that can win the national championship, and Saint Peter’s is one of them.
“Growing up playing basketball as a kid, you dream of moments like this,” junior guard Daryl Banks III said.
Neither team led by more than six points, and neither led by more than four in the second half. Banks, Saint Peter’s leading scorer, nudged the Peacocks ahead for good with 2:17 remaining, hitting a driving layup for two of his team-high 14 points. There was no golden shot for the Peacocks. Once they took the lead, they choked the life out of the game with continued defensive pressure and clutch free throws.
Throughout the game, Holloway told his players, “Keep battling, and we’ll see what happens.” Purdue took a four-point lead with an 8-0 run early in the second half, but Holloway knew the longer the Peacocks could hang, the more pressure would mount on the favorite.
“We’ve been trying to keep it close and make them make mistakes down the stretch,” Holloway said. “When you’re playing against teams like that who’s supposed to win, when you keep it tight, certain things can happen. We kept battling. I knew the ball was going to bounce our way, and it did.”
Saint Peter’s claims 34,000 living alumni, and at times it sounded as if all of them had barged into Wells Fargo Center, about a 90-mile drive down the Turnpike from Jersey City. Holloway had to shut his phone off this week because so many people were asking for tickets. The neutral fans in Carolina and UCLA hues of blue, like the rest of the nation, adopted Saint Peter’s as their own. After the anthem, the arena burst into chants of, “Let’s go Peacocks!” During introductions, the Boilermakers heard boos and Saint Peter’s — especially Holloway — received ovations. Everybody who wasn’t a Peacock became one.
“Obviously, we have a lot more fans now,” said junior guard Doug Edert, the mustachioed sharpshooter who made 7 of 8 free throws, many of which helped ice the game. “But I don’t think it affects us while we’re playing. I feel like there’s no pressure. We’re just going out there like we would if there was nobody in the stands. Our game is our game.”
The Peacocks jogged on the court for warmups in T-shirts that read, “More is possible,” and from the start they showed zero satisfaction in having simply made the Sweet 16. Saint Peter’s starting center Clarence Rupert, a 6-foot-8 freshman and Philadelphia native, did not bother jumping at the opening tip standing across Edey. When Purdue worked the ball to Edey on the ensuing possession, though, Rupert poked the ball away.
The Peacocks pestered Purdue all night. After made baskets, Lee and Banks smothered Purdue point guards the length of the court. The Peacocks rattled Ivey, bracketing him with two defenders and collapsing on him when he drove; he finished the first half with four points, two turnovers and no assists. Holloway, as he had done brilliantly all tournament, mixed defensive tactics.
The Peacocks’ defense kept them in the game. They shot 38.7 percent in the first half, but they only trailed 33-29 at the break because they forced nine turnovers and yielded just three offensive rebounds despite their massive height disadvantage.
Purdue never solved the Peacocks’ defense. Ivey charged into Banks and committed an offensive foul on Purdue’s first possession of the second half. Saint Peter’s scored the first eight points of the second half and took a 37-33 lead. After Ivey was left holding the ball as the shot clock ran out, Holloway pumped his fist. Purdue didn’t score for the first 5:47 of the half.
The Boilermakers turned to Williams, whose low-post scoring brought Purdue back. When the Boilermakers retook a four-point lead, the Peacocks never blinked. Ivey finished with nine points on 4-for-12 shooting and committed six turnovers. Edey scored 11 and turned it over five times. He wasn’t too tall for them; they were too quick for him.
Afterward, with Holloway sitting next to Edert behind a dais, a reporter asked Edert how it felt to stand up on the press table.
“You got up on the table?” Holloway said, dipping his chin and giving Edert a double side-eye.
“I found a little opening and started moving stuff,” Edert said, lurching for words that appease his coach. “Next question, actually.”
The Peacocks are growing accustomed to life in the tournament, having stayed longer than any team with their seed ever has. One month ago, they were blown out by conference foe Siena and fell to 12-11. They have not lost since. They will play again Sunday for a trip to the Final Four, and by now their opponent will know they are playing to win.
“We’re making history,” Edert said. “We’re looking forward to making more history.”
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