Something about Saint Peter's doesn't add up. Put aside for the moment how the Peacocks keep winning games. It’s hard enough getting a handle on what they do well.
No. 2 Kentucky couldn’t, seventh-seeded Murray State didn’t, and by the end of their Sweet 16 matchup Friday, No. 3 Purdue was left grasping at air. That's the short answer to how the Peacocks became the first 15 seed in the history of the NCAA Tournament to book a spot in the Elite Eight.
Saint Peter's isn't long on experienced players, like the mid-majors that have been turning over the tables at the tournament in recent years. The Peacocks aren't big, either, which means 6-foot-7 KC Ndefo, their best and most experienced player, often plays out of position. They don't have a real star, let alone a surefire NBA prospect.
What they do better than anyone else is turn those doubts into fuel.
“What,” coach Shaheen Holloway asked after his Peacocks held off the Boilermakers for a 67-64 win, “are they going to say now?”
“Good luck” would be a good start, since Saint Peter's draws blueblood North Carolina — which already holds the record for most Final Four appearances (20) — in Sunday's East Regional Final. The Tar Heels beat UCLA 73-66, after Caleb Love made the game-tying and go-ahead 3-pointers 37 seconds apart, then added two free throws with 7.8 seconds left to seal the win.
Love shot for 1 for 8 in the first half, and in a move likely to be commemorated in a sneaker ad by the time you read this, changed shoes at halftime after Eric Hoots, the team’s director of operations, suggested the switch. Love went 10 for 16 in the second.
“I’m going to give him a raise,” Tar Heels coach Hubert Davis said, referring to Hoots and not Love.
Coach Bill Self might be in line for a pay bump himself after the Kansas Jayhawks, the lone remaining No. 1 seed, locked up Providence on the defensive end of the floor and held on for a 66-61 win. In the bargain, Kansas advanced to face No. 10 Miami, and also moved ahead of Kentucky for most wins in Division I history with 2,354.
History, however, didn't come easy. Despite scoring just 17 first-half points and trailing by 13 early in the second half, the Friars roared back behind Noah Horchler, who hit a pair of 3-pointers to pull within 41-40 at the midway point. Horchler then added a layup with 5:49 left to give Providence its first lead at 48-47.
“I don't know that I totally buy in 100 percent that we don't ever get rattled,” Self said afterward. “But I do think ... our league (the Big 12) has prepared us in the way you play so many close games. Every game is a fistfight.”
The Hurricanes beat 11th-seeded Iowa State 70-56 in the nightcap, though the matchup of two of the most suffocating defenses left in the tourney was a mostly one-sided affair. The Cyclones shot 32% in the second half, submarining their own cause further by turning the ball over 18 times.
Miami's Kameron McGusty led all scorers with 27 points on 10-of-18 shooting and added six rebounds.
“At the beginning of the season if we told you we were going to the Elite Eight, everybody would laugh at us and look at us crazy," McGusty said. “Even three weeks into the season, everybody would look at us crazy.”
The Peacocks, and especially their 45-year-old coach, know the feeling. The arc of Holloway's basketball career is worthy of a documentary, though there are likely several more chapters still to be written, and the one about his stay at Saint Peter's might be close to finished.
Holloway was one of the best point-guard prospects in the country in high school, wresting MVP honors in the 1996 McDonald’s All-American game from the likes of Kobe Bryant, Richard Hamilton and Mike Bibby. He spurned scholarship offers from Duke, Kansas and Syracuse to stay close to home and chose Seton Hall.
A freak ankle injury in a 2000 tournament game against Temple ended both his college career and his chances of playing in the NBA. Instead of bitterness over what might have been, he went to work preparing to become a coach. The two themes that defined Holloway — loyalty and a pick-yourself-up-after-you've-been-knocked down mentality — proved irresistible to the collection of overlooked and under-recruited he drew to a tiny commuter school in Jersey City, New Jersey.
Ultimately, what the Peacocks do well depends on the night. Against Kentucky, it was Daryl Banks III going off for 27 points. Against Purdue, he scored the tying and go-ahead baskets late, but scored only 14 total. Clarence Rupert added 11 and battled the Boilermakers 7-foot-4 Zach Edey in the paint throughout. Doug Edert added 10, including two free throws that finished off Purdue.
Saint Peter's will be a big underdog yet again when it meets North Carolina. What the Peacocks won't be is awed.
Asked after the Murray State upset how his players handled being pushed around by a bigger, more experienced team, Holloway just scoffed. His answer has become the Peacocks' mantra.
"I got guys from New Jersey and New York City," he said. "You think we’re scared of anything?”
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