Saint Peter’s first six home games of the 2021-22 season have been played in front of announced crowds of less than 500 people, in a gymnasium that rivals that of some nearby high schools.
Even the thought of this team playing in front of a packed NBA arena just over two months later seemed impossible.
Supporters of the program took planes, trains and automobiles to the Sweet 16 in Philadelphia to see him play this weekend, but there may not have been more than 500 people in the arena. Friday who were Saint Peter fans before March 15. make no mistake: it was a Peacocks home game in Philadelphia. Basketball fans everywhere have embraced this consummate underdog over the past nine days, and the bandwagon hasn’t stopped growing yet.
After defeating No. 3 Purdue, 67–64, Saint Peter’s is the greatest NCAA Tournament Cinderella of all time. And as the Peacocks’ pre-game warm-up jerseys say, “more is possible.”
“We’re happy, but don’t get me wrong, we’re not happy. We are not satisfied at all. The job is not done,” said Doug Edert. “We feel like we belong, and the more games we win, the more confidence we build.”
The superlatives for this race are limitless. The Peacocks have beaten, in succession, perhaps the best player in the sport (Oscar Tshiebwe, of No. 2 Kentucky), the team with the best record in the sport (No. 7 Murray State) and now the best offense in the sport. (Purdue). They are the first No. 15 seed to reach the Elite Eight, and in doing so, become the darling of not just the basketball world, but the sports world at large. Considering the hurdles this program has overcome, there is evidence that this is not just the most surprising run in college basketball history, but the greatest underdog story. in American sports history. That a small school that takes up two blocks in Jersey City and is not far from using mid-term trash cans to catch water dripping from the ceiling is now known internationally for its hardwood success is something that seems absurd, even for March Madness.
On Friday, fans wearing t-shirts and jerseys representing two of the biggest brands in the sport (UCLA and North Carolina) roared to life with every big Saint Peter basket. In Chicago, the other venue for the day’s NCAA tournament, fans erupted every time the scoreboard showed an in-game update with the Peacocks hanging out. For at least one night, the whole sports world watched as a school with less than 35,000 active alumni played a basketball game. They celebrated as if they’d spent four years crossing Kennedy Boulevard to get to class on campus or attending games at what’s now Run Baby Run Arena when in reality many probably hadn’t. no idea where St. Peter was or that it was a Division I school until last week.
Somehow, though, this Cinderella story for the ages doesn’t feel like a fluke at all. In every match, Saint Peter’s outplayed their opponent. He didn’t hit a stunning three-barrel or need buzzer beaters to stay alive. He didn’t throw out any wacky defensive plans or do anything too revealing from an X and Bone perspective. Matt Painter reiterated after the game that Saint Peter’s had done nothing the Boilermakers had never seen before to limit the nation’s most effective offense to 64 points and stop a future top-five NBA pick at Jaden Ivey: They just got beat.
They were beaten with physicality and tenacity, perhaps the advantage of New York and New Jersey that coach Shaheen Holloway spoke of last week. They were beaten by timely shots and critical rebounds by a team made up of under-recruited and under-sized competitors. Holloway has said time and time again that many of his players think they should play Kentucky, but in a layup line, the Peacocks look like a pretty ordinary middle team, with small guards and skinny big men.
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Yet, over the past nine days, we have learned that there is nothing ordinary about Saint-Pierre. The Peacocks are relentlessly tough, unfazed at the moment and not yet happy with their performance in this tournament. In fact, Holloway playfully berated Edert when he discovered the mustachioed shooter had stood on the media table in post-match celebration and then clarified that it was far from a perfect performance. of his team.
“It wasn’t one of our best defensive performances,” Holloway said. “I know you might say I’m crazy for saying that, but if you watched us play then you would know that’s not the case.”
This tournament was full of surely this is the end times for peacocks. Trailing by six with less than four minutes left against Kentucky in the first round, Saint Peter’s appeared on their way back to anonymity, a team that enjoyed 15 minutes of fame amid the chaos of the first day of the tournament. Once he won that, he would surely fail against a Murray State team that hadn’t lost since Christmas, right? And after outlasting the Racers, spending a week hearing how great they are would almost certainly end the Peacocks’ run, especially against a team built around a future NBA player and center. 7’4”…right?
Even in Friday’s game, there were times when Purdue felt like it was in total control. A Jaylen Murray layup at the buzzer snapped a long first-half-ending drought that had allowed Purdue to build a six-point cushion. Later, Trevion Williams began to establish himself on the block and raced 8-0 to help the Boilermakers regain the lead. Tournament clutch shooter Edert missed a forward game of a one-on-one and blew an open layup as the Peacocks were seemingly on the ropes.
Saint Peter never wavered. Just like he did against Kentucky and Murray State, he won the game down the stretch with his play. He got some huge saves when it mattered most, made clutch shots and hit big free throws. He took care of the ball even watching the defensive pressure all over the pitch. The Peacocks just made plays, with the confidence of a team that’s played in times like this for years, not days.
The biggest underdog in sports history will now face one of the biggest programs in college basketball history for a shot at the Final Four. But if this tournament has taught us one thing so far, it’s this:
Don’t count those peacocks.
More St. Peter’s coverage:
• Why St. Peter is the most unlikely Cinderella of all
• Sports world reacts to historic peacock upset
• Shaheen Holloway gives an amazing interview