Saint Peter’s pulls March Madness shocker, moves to Elite Eight

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PHILADELPHIA — The impossible dream became even more impossible Friday night. Or, more accurately, it became reality.

The extraordinary Saint Peter’s Peacocks became the first 15th seed in NCAA tournament history to reach the Elite Eight, stunning Purdue, 67-64, inside Wells Fargo Arena. Given that the last time the Philadelphia 76ers won an NBA championship came in 1983 — and on the road — it is probably fair to say the 26-year-old building has never seen a night like this one.

Saint Peter’s has now defeated Kentucky, Murray State and Purdue — not bad for a tiny school in Jersey City that had never won an NCAA tournament game until eight days ago.

“We’re making history,” sixth man Doug Edert said with a shrug. “And we want to keep making history. We’re happy. But we’re not satisfied.”

The more telling postgame response might have come from the Purdue players.

“I have no idea what to say,” Sasha Stefanovic said. “I still can’t believe it.”

“I’m still in shock,” center Trevion Williams said. “Just shocked.”

So was the rest of the college basketball world.

Saint Peter’s is first 15 seed to reach Elite Eight; ready for more history

“We don`t blow teams out,” Saint Peter’s Coach Shaheen Holloway said. “That’s not in our DNA. But I told the guys, when you’re playing a team that’s supposed to win, if you keep it close, certain things can happen.”

They certainly did. Neither team led by more than six points the entire night. Every time it seemed as if Purdue, with all its size and experience and tournament history, might take control, the Peacocks made a play. Purdue was clinging to a two-point lead after a Williams free throw with 3:42 left. Saint Peter’s promptly scored six straight, keyed by guard Daryl Banks III, whose tough spinning shot in the lane gave his team the lead — as it turned out, for good — with 2:17 to go.

“They just outplayed us,” Purdue Coach Matt Painter said. “They beat us the same way they beat the other teams. They were gritty, and they were tough. They earned it.”

When the teams took the court before tip-off, it was easy to see the difference between them. It wasn’t just the height difference, although that was impossible to miss, especially when the 6-foot-10 Williams and 7-4 Zach Edey — who appears to be closer to 8-4 —came on to the court.

Purdue, the last of the Big Ten’s nine tournament teams, wore shirts with one of those silly corporate sayings about playing hard or being all in or being a family — the kind of tripe you see whenever big-time teams play.

Saint Peter’s shirts had no corporate tripe on them, just a small logo. The front of the shirts said “Black Lives Matter.” The back of the shirts had the word “racism,” with a large X through the word.

Most inside the building thought that once the ball went up, the basketball differences between the corporate team from the corporate Big Ten and the little-team-that-could from the Metro Atlantic Athletic Conference would quickly become apparent.

Holloway’s quote from last weekend about kids from New York and New Jersey not being afraid of anything — now on billboards in New Jersey — rang true right from the start. The Peacocks, who became America’s team with their massive upset of Kentucky followed by a win over a very good Murray State team, attacked at both ends of the court from the start.

While the Peacocks played with fearless fervor, the Boilermakers were so obsessed with getting the ball to Edey and Williams that they frequently forgot to run their offense. Edey was 3 for 3 from the field in the first half but also had four turnovers. Williams was 1 for 5 and took several shots that might as well have been turnovers. Meanwhile, Saint Peter’s Clarence Rupert, a 6-8 freshman who spent a lot of time draped on the two big men in white, scored 11 points on 5-for-8 shooting.

The miracle of Saint Peter’s: How Jersey City produced the most underdog team

Williams warmed up in the second half and finished with 16 points. Edey had 11 but also had five turnovers, and he was pressured from about five different sides whenever he caught the ball.

The real key, though, was the guard play. Banks and point guard Matthew Lee made life miserable for the Purdue backcourt, notably Jaden Ivey, Purdue’s best player. Ivey had a horrific night, scoring just nine points — the last on his only made three-pointer of the night with the game just about over — and also had six turnovers. Saint Peter’s had eight—as a team.

One person not surprised by the toughness of Saint Peter’s — or the outcome — was analyst Jim Spanarkel, who grew up three blocks from the campus before going to Duke and playing on a Final Four team in 1978.

“The whole thing about kids from New York and New Jersey not being afraid is real,” he said, relaxing on what would be the Saint Peter’s bench a couple of hours before tip-off. “If you grew up in Jersey City, you knew Saint Peter’s. And you certainly knew about that 1968 team and Elnardo Webster.”

Webster was the star of what was the school’s most glamorous team before last weekend. He averaged 24 points and 14 rebounds and led the Peacocks to the semifinals of the NIT — back when only 25 teams made the NCAA tournament and the NIT really mattered — including a 100-71 win over Duke in the quarterfinals.

Tragically, Webster, who spent his entire adult life working with inner city kids after getting his PhD from Seton Hall, died Tuesday at the age of 74. “He was an absolute class act,” Spanarkel said. “He would have loved being here tonight so much.”

When Tom McMahon, who played on that 1968 team, paid to have the 47-year-old Yanitelli Center renovated, he insisted it be renamed “Run Baby Run Arena,” in honor of that team’s battle cry.

This team’s battle cry could be “Guard, baby, guard.” Saint Peter’s pressured Purdue’s guards for 40 minutes, and while the pressure didn’t produce backcourt turnovers, it did make life difficult and often meant the Boilermakers didn’t get into their offense until the shot clock was under 20 seconds.

The Peacocks didn’t blink when they fell behind, and they made all their free throws down the stretch (hitting 19 of 21 for the game). When it was over, they celebrated wildly, running to where their fans were and generally going crazy. Edert even jumped on the press table to lead cheers. When he was asked about that postgame, Holloway leaned over and asked Edert whether he had really gotten onto the table.

Edert turned bright red and said, “Next question.”

By then, the Peacocks had answered all of Friday’s questions. History made. There is still more to be made Sunday.

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