The first six home games of Saint Peter’s 2021–22 season were played in front of announced crowds of less than 500 people, in a gym that rivals that of some nearby high schools.
Even just the thought of that team playing in front of a packed NBA arena a little more than two months later felt impossible.
Supporters of the program took planes, trains and automobiles to get to the Sweet 16 in Philadelphia to see it play this weekend, but there may not have been many more than 500 people in Friday’s arena who were Saint Peter’s fans before March 15. Still, make no mistake: It was a Peacocks home game in Philly. Basketball fans from everywhere adopted this consummate underdog over the last nine days, and the bandwagon hasn’t stopped growing yet.
After knocking off No. 3 Purdue, 67–64, Saint Peter’s is the NCAA tournament’s greatest Cinderella ever. And just as the Peacocks’ pregame warm-up shirts read, “more is possible.”
“We're happy, but don’t mistake, we’re not satisfied. We’re not satisfied at all. The job is not finished,” Doug Edert said. “We feel like we belong, and the more games we win, the more confidence we build.”
The superlatives for this run are unlimited. The Peacocks have beaten, in succession, perhaps the sport’s best player (Oscar Tshiebwe, of No. 2 Kentucky), the team with the sport’s best record (No. 7 Murray State) and now the sport’s top offense (Purdue). They’re the first No. 15 seed to ever reach the Elite Eight, and in the process become the darling of not just the basketball world, but the sports world in general. There’s a case to be made, given the obstacles this program has overcome, that this isn’t just the most surprising run in college basketball history, but the greatest underdog tale in U.S. sports history. That a small school which takes up two blocks in Jersey City and isn’t far removed from using trash cans mid-practice to catch dripping water from the ceiling is now internationally known for its success on the hardwood is something that feels absurd, even for March Madness.
On Friday, fans wearing T-shirts and jerseys representing two of the sport’s largest brands (UCLA and North Carolina) roared to life with every big Saint Peter’s basket. In Chicago, at the day’s other NCAA tournament site, fans erupted every time the scoreboard showed an in-game update with the Peacocks hanging around. For one night at least, the whole sports world watched while a school with under 35,000 active alumni played a basketball game. They celebrated like they had spent four years traversing Kennedy Boulevard to walk to class on campus or had attended games at what is now Run Baby Run Arena when, in reality, many probably had no idea where Saint Peter’s was or that it was a Division I school before last week.
Somehow, though, this Cinderella story for the ages doesn’t feel at all like a fluke. Each game, Saint Peter’s has outplayed its opponent. It hasn’t hit a stunning barrage of threes or needed buzzer beaters to stay alive. It hasn’t thrown out wacky defensive schemes or done anything overly revelatory from an Xs and Os standpoint. Matt Painter repeated postgame that Saint Peter’s didn’t do anything the Boilermakers hadn’t seen before to limit the nation’s most efficient offense to 64 points and shut down a future top-five NBA pick in Jaden Ivey: They just got beat.
They got beat with physicality and toughness, perhaps the New York and New Jersey edge that coach Shaheen Holloway spoke of last week. They got beat by timely shots and critical rebounds by a team made up of underrecruited, undersized competitors. Holloway has said over and over that many of his players believe they should be playing at Kentucky, but in a layup line the Peacocks look like a rather ordinary mid-major team, with small guards and skinny big men.
Yet over the last nine days, we’ve learned there’s nothing ordinary about Saint Peter’s. The Peacocks are relentlessly tough, unfazed by the moment and not satisfied yet with their performance in this tournament. In fact, Holloway playfully scolded Edert when he found out that the mustached shooting guard had stood on the media table to celebrate postgame and later made clear that this was far from a perfect performance from 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 it’s not.”
This tournament has been full of surely, this is the end moments for the Peacocks. When it trailed by six with under four minutes to go against Kentucky in the opening round, Saint Peter’s appeared on its way back to anonymity, a team that enjoyed 15 minutes of fame amidst the chaos of the tourney’s first day. Once it won that, surely it’d falter against a Murray State team that hadn’t lost since Christmas, right? And after surviving the Racers, spending a week hearing about how great they are would almost certainly end the Peacocks’ run, particularly when staring down a team built around a future NBA player and a 7’4” center … right?
Even in Friday’s game, there were moments where Purdue felt like it had full control. A Jaylen Murray layup at the buzzer ended a long scoring drought to end the first half that had allowed Purdue to build a six-point cushion. Later, Trevion Williams began establishing himself on the block and keyed an 8–0 run to help the Boilermakers regain the lead. Edert, the clutch shot-maker of the tournament, missed a front end of a one-and-one and blew an open layup when the Peacocks were seemingly on the ropes.
Saint Peter’s never wavered. Just as it did against Kentucky and Murray State, it won the game down the stretch with its play. It got huge stops when it mattered most, made clutch shots and hit big free throws. It took care of the ball even when staring down fullcourt defensive pressure. The Peacocks just made plays, with the confidence of a team that has played in moments like this for years, not days.
The greatest underdog in sports history will now face one of the greatest programs in college basketball history for a chance at the Final Four. But if this tournament has taught us one thing so far, it’s this:
Don’t count out these Peacocks.
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