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Saint Peter’s Shows the Magic of March in Conquering Powerhouse Kentucky

For one day, the Peacocks—of a tiny Jesuit school in New Jersey—were better than one of college basketball’s ultimate bluebloods.

In the leadup to Saint Peter’s University’s first NCAA tournament game in over a decade, the Peacocks reached out to Kentucky officials with an offer: buy the remainder of the Peacocks’ ticket allotment for the game.

It’s a fairly standard request at events like this, particularly considering Saint Peter’s is a tiny Jesuit school in New Jersey hundreds of miles away from Indianapolis, playing against perhaps the largest fanbase in the sport.

Kentucky declined. Why

As the story goes, Kentucky was selling tickets for Thursday and Saturday games, not just for Thursday. It had no use for the Peacocks’ Thursday tickets.

Now, Big Blue Nation’s tickets for Saturday might be hitting the secondary market.

Saint Peter’s Daryl Banks III

Daryl Banks III had the game of his life to beat the Wildcats.

The Peacocks pulled by far the biggest shock of March Madness so far, stunning a highly partisan Kentucky crowd in Indianapolis to send the Wildcats home early from the NCAA tournament with an 85–79 win Thursday night. In so many ways, it was the perfect March moment: A school whose entire men’s basketball budget is less than one-fifth of John Calipari’s annual salary knocked off one of the game’s most storied programs and coaches, becoming just the 10th No. 15 seed to ever beat a No. 2 since the tournament’s expansion in 1985. In the process, they knocked out one of the favorites to win the national championship and sent home the potential National Player of the Year on the first full day of the Big Dance.

SI’s Live Men’s NCAA Tournament Bracket

Saint Peter’s brought the fight to Kentucky from the opening tip. While clearly undersized, the Peacocks had no fear going up against one of the nation’s most imposing front lines. Two fouls in the first two minutes on second-leading scorer and top defender KC Ndefo didn’t phase them. Scoring two points before the game’s first media timeout? Didn’t phase them. Neither did big dunks by Jacob Toppin or loud roars from the Kentucky crowd. Saint Peter’s kept getting knocked down and kept picking itself up off the mat.

“We just love being the underdogs,” Ndefo said. They played the part well.

The first half hero for the Peacocks was Daryl Banks III, who exploded for 16 points in 15 minutes to help Saint Peter’s survive all the early foul trouble. Banks was 4 for 4 from three in the opening stanza, and the belief the Peacocks had in their ability to do the impossible seemed to grow with every triple that tickled the twine. For a team that ranks well outside the top 200 in KenPom’s offensive efficiency metric and had failed to top 70 points 17 times this season, scoring 37 points in the opening half felt like quite the accomplishment.

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Surely the game would turn in the Wildcats’ favor eventually though, right? With all the talent and athleticism, size and quickness and experience and recruiting pedigree on their side? Just a few hours earlier, Gonzaga had endured about 28 minutes of fight from No. 16 seed Georgia State to open its tournament before blowing the Panthers away late. There were a few moments where Kentucky felt like it was gaining momentum, but it never quite seized the game all the way. And every punch the Peacocks survived seemed to strengthen their resolve.

Perhaps the most improbable push back was the final one of regulation after going down six with under four minutes to play. Shaheen Holloway had one more card to play: frustrated by his team’s inability to contain dribble penetration, he switched to a 2–3 zone defense to try to give his team one more spark.

Kentucky coach John Calipari wipes his face with a towel

This was Kentucky’s earliest NCAA tournament exit under John Calipari.

It worked to perfection. Kentucky looked baffled by the defense, committing consecutive turnovers to help key a 7–0 scoring run for the Peacocks capped by a Doug Edert three that regained the lead with under 90 seconds to play.

“[I] couldn't get [Kentucky] to throw the ball to the middle,” Calipari said. “I mean, we had not had that issue against any zone we played. But we did today.”

And that’s the beauty of March. All that matters is today. Kentucky may own the nation’s top rebounding margin in the country. Today, it only outrebounded a school from the Metro Atlantic Athletic Conference by one. Kellan Grady may be one of the nation’s top three-point shooters. Today he shot 1 for 7 from deep. Sahvir Wheeler may have solidified Kentucky’s point guard position and made the Wildcats one of the best teams in the nation. Today, he turned it over six times and Kentucky was minus-15 in his 40 minutes on the floor.

Today, Saint Peter’s was better than Kentucky. No amount of coachspeak in the leadup to games like this can make you truly believe all the challenges a minnow like Saint Peter’s presents a shark like Kentucky until you see it for yourself. Even Peacocks’ small but mighty cheering section didn’t seem to fully believe what they were seeing until their team was awarded the ball leading by three with under 45 seconds to go in overtime after a lengthy review. Then, it started to hit people.

Today, Saint Peter’s University, a school even Edert admitted that people “probably don’t know who they are,” was going to beat the University of Kentucky.

As soon as the buzzer sounded, the Peacocks’ players made their way over to that small contingent of fans that had cheered them on.

And if any of those Saint Peter’s fans are looking for tickets for Saturday, plenty will be available. 

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