Ouch! Bracket-breaking Saint Peter race ends in Elite Eight

PHILADELPHIA CREAM – Saint Peter coach Shaheen Holloway pulled his starters off the field as the seconds ticked away and didn’t let them wallow in defeat. The Peacocks have locked arms for a final group of teams – Doug Edert, KC Ndefo, Daryl Banks III and the rest of the bracket breakers who put the small suburban college in Jersey City, New Jersey, on the map.

Holloway’s speech – possibly the last he will deliver at St. Peter’s – was simple: Stay proud of how a team few outside of campus had heard of until two weeks had shocked the basketball world.

“We have guys who will be remembered for things they could say to their kids and grandkids,” Holloway said.

What a story to tell. Just maybe skip the end.

The Peacocks’ jolly run through the NCAA Tournament ended in a miss in a 69-49 final loss to North Carolina on Sunday.

Saint Peter fans – numerous and again vocal in Philadelphia – rallied behind the new favorite USA team even as the scoreline spiraled out of control.

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“You beat Kentucky! You beat Purdue! You can beat those guys too,” one man shouted.

Not those Tar Heels.

The Peacocks, so proud and level-headed that they became the first No. 15 seed to reach the Elite Eight, were bewildered from the start. The Tar Heels opened on a 7-0 run and Holloway called a quick timeout to try and stabilize his team.

No dice.

“I didn’t really recognize my team the first 10 minutes of the game,” Holloway said. “I thought we came out a little slow, a little timid.”

Banks – who two nights earlier had scored the winning bucket against Purdue – failed to complete an easy lane. Edert missed a long 3 in front of the Carolina bench.

Who were these guys?

Saint Peter’s missed 16 of their first 20 shots and 6 of 7 3 and never led.

The Peacocks, who went on an NCAA-best 10-game winning streak, were knocked out by the Carolina D — and even the rim. Banks was stuffed through the front of the rim on a monster dunk attempt. Armando Bacot came straight for the Tar Heels and used a thunderous two-handed jam to show Saint Peter how it’s done.

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At half-time, Saint-Pierre needed an Ave Maria. North Carolina 38, Saint Peter’s 19.

The final minutes of the game could have been the final minutes of Holloway’s tenure at Saint Peter’s. Holloway is a leading candidate to succeed Kevin Willard as coach at Seton Hall, his alma mater. He deflected tournament-wide questions about his future. But even the 45-year-old Holloway, who is in his fourth season at the small Jesuit school with 2,134 undergraduates, must surely know that he has maximized Saint Peter’s potential. He again refused on Sunday to talk about his professional fate.

“I’m worried about these 15 young men who are heartbroken and really depressed,” he said. “It’s my job as a leader to cheer them up, to make sure they understand what they’ve been doing for the past two weeks, and like I said, we’re going to get out of here from the same way we came in here with our heads held high.”

In other words, as we say in Saint Pete’s, #StrutUp.

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But what Holloway and the Peacocks (21-12) accomplished in two weekends could be the lasting memory of this tournament, no matter which blue blood cuts the net next week in New Orleans.

“What we did, we generated a lot of publicity for our school,” Banks said. “It’s just going to help the school in general. Caught the attention of anyone who wants to come here. I think what we have done will impact everyone who knows the school now, in the future.

Saint Peter’s knocked out the No. 2 seed from Kentucky to start a run that launched the rocket ship to endorsement deals, morning show spots and late-night TV jokes.

This win alone – Coach Cal is down! – should have been enough to sustain the program for decades to come. But then came a win over seventh-seeded Murray State and a date in the Sweet 16. Then came the big, bad, Big Ten Boilermakers. FanDuel Sportsbook had Purdue a 12 1/2 point favorite to win Friday’s Sweet 16 game in Philadelphia. The last thing Purdue saw leaving the field were delirious peacocks jumping on press tables, making snowmen on the field and celebrating an improbable 67-64 victory.

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About 93 miles down the New Jersey Turnpike, nearly 2,000 fans flocked to the Saint Peter bandbox known as Run Baby Run Arena for a watch party. It was an impossible scene to imagine back when just over 400 fans attended the season opener, but it’s easy to think that this week it could last at least one more weekend and that the school could dance with Duke.

The fan club grew as the wins piled up – all having fun until the race was choked out by a team from Tobacco Road.

True story, peacocks can fly. But not until the Final Four.

“Saint-Pierre did it. Period,” Holloway said. “Saint Peter’s have reached the Elite Eight. Great story.”


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