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PHILADELPHIA — If Saint Peter’s miraculous March run was a Hollywood script, it would’ve been thrown away.
It remains that hard to believe — that this tiny Jersey City school could knock off national title contender Kentucky and Murray State, winner of 21 straight games, in successive stunners to reach the Sweet 16 after starting the season with six losses in nine games.
The point guard, Matthew Lee, started as a walk-on. The star senior, KC Ndefo, wanted to transfer, but couldn’t find a taker. The leading scorer, Daryl Banks III, held one other scholarship offer. The program had never won a single NCAA Tournament game and the conference (MAAC) it represents last advanced a team in the main draw 13 years ago.
“Doing what we’re doing right now,” Banks said Thursday, “is going to go down in history.”
One more win, over heavily favored and third-seeded Purdue on Friday night at Wells Fargo Center, and the Peacocks will become the first 15th seed ever to reach the Elite Eight. Already, they are the first team from the New York City area to advance to the Sweet 16 since Seton Hall in 2000. The star of that team? Saint Peter’s coach Shaheen Holloway, the breakout star of the tournament who has led the Peacocks from anonymity to the biggest stage in the sport.
“It means everything,” said Holloway, a Queens native who was unable to play in that Sweet 16 over two decades ago due to a badly sprained ankle. “It’s hard to get to this point, so when you’re here, you’ve just got to continue to keep working and try to get further and further.”
Predictably, as the Cinderella darling of the tournament, Saint Peter’s (21-11) has found itself in the spotlight. Mustachioed shooting guard Doug Edert received a Name, Image and Likeness deal from Buffalo Wild Wings. The school threw the team welcome-home and going-away parties. Tuesday’s media availability attracted roughly 50 reporters, photographers and cameramen to the school. Holloway cut off the media barrage on Wednesday to get his team to focus on the task at hand. His players insist all the attention won’t be a distraction.
“We’re still trying to prove ourselves,” Edert said. “The only thing that matters right now is beating Purdue and moving on.”
Saint Peter’s season began to turn in mid-December, when a 26-day COVID-19 breakout paused the season. The Peacocks were 3-6 then, which included five losses to non-NCAA Tournament teams. Since, they are 18-5. The defeats were all by single figures. Of the victories, nine have come by double digits, including the win over Murray State.
The time off allowed Ndefo to find his rhythm after missing the entire summer and a chunk of fall workouts. It gave Lee time to get healthy following a severe ankle injury. It enabled Holloway to pore over film and take a long look at his roster.
He realized that Saint Peter’s had gotten away from its strength — defense — and he went to a bigger lineup that played at a slower pace. Saint Peter’s has allowed more than 70 points just twice in that span. In its current nine-game winning streak, the opposition has been held to an average of 55.6 points per game.
“I know it messed up a couple of teams, but it actually helped us,” Holloway said of the virus-induced interruption to the season. “Since the COVID pause, this team has been a different team.”
That defense will really be put to the rest Friday night against Purdue (29-7), which is in all likelihood the best team Saint Peter’s has faced this year. The Boilermakers are ranked second in offensive efficiency. They feature elite post options in 7-foot-4 Zach Edey and Trevion Williams, arguably the most dynamic guard in the country in Jaden Ivey and the nation’s fourth-best 3-point shooting attack at 39.1 percent. They are rightfully a 12.5-point favorite.
But the Peacocks won’t be intimidated. They won’t be in awe of the moment. Not this group of overachievers that have come so far.
They weren’t given a chance against Kentucky. Murray State was a heavy favorite. Saint Peter’s outplayed both of those higher seeds. Purdue is next on its list.
“Being the underdogs and being doubted,” Ndefo said, “is what we thrive off of.”