Saint Peter is ready for another chance to shock the world

The easy part will happen as soon as the ball goes up. Then just play. Then just do what you’ve been doing your whole life, in playgrounds and in driveways and in gyms. First to 11 wins. Lead it back. Carry it back further. Hour after hour after hour in the sun, in the snow, in the rain. Once the ball goes up, nothing counts.

“We don’t feel any pressure,” Saint Peter junior point guard Matthew Lee said Thursday morning. “Even though it’s a bigger stage. It’s just basketball.”

The other stuff, fun as it’s been for the past few days, will go away around 7:09 on Friday night when the Saint Peter’s Peacocks play the Purdue Boilermakers at the Wells Fargo Center in Philadelphia. Officially, the teams will compete in the “East Region Semifinals,” but that’s just fancy talk. This is the Sweet 16. And there’s never been a sweeter basketball story than this one.

And that is absolutely lovely, as is the fact that the Saint Peter campus is only 92 miles away, a nice easy drive up I-95, as is the fact that aside from the day trippers from West Lafayette, Indiana, the entire building will be cheering for St. Peter’s, not to mention the rest of the nation. For the past week, the Peacocks have probably felt like players on a movie set waiting for a director to say “Cut!” print it!”

But Friday night isn’t a movie set. Just another basketball court. Just like the Run Baby Run Center back home, on campus, on Montgomery Street. Just like the abandoned Marist High Gym in Bayonne, where so many of these players trained in isolation during the height of the COVID-19 pandemic. Just like the North Jersey and New York City high school courts that helped promote them.

St. Peter's guard Daryl Banks III throws down two of his 27 points against Kentucky on March 17, 2022.
St. Peter’s guard Daryl Banks III throws down two of his 27 points against Kentucky on March 17, 2022.
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“Honestly,” said senior guard and folk hero Doug Edert, “there’s nothing to be afraid of.”

Saint Peter is not afraid. We saw it last week. We’ve been hearing it all week. We’ve seen the Jersey billboard, which read Coach Shaheen Holloway’s equally defiant and delightful words: “I’ve got boys from New Jersey and New York City. Do you think we’re afraid of anything?” It won’t be about fear. Do not worry about it.

Two more times a 15th starter squeezed through the first weekend and ended up in the Sweet 16. The first, the 2013 Florida Gulf Coast Eagles, was a rollicking roadshow dubbed “Dunk City,” which actually led Florida to their region’s early semifinals before the Gators rolled over them with a 16-0 run. But the Eagles never lost their swagger.

A year ago, Oral Roberts had an even more enticing flavor. After defeating Ohio State and Florida, the Eagles led Arkansas by as much as 12 points in the second half before a desperate Razorbacks rally saved the day for the Hogs. These Golden Eagles have never lost their swagger either.

The peacocks? You know what to expect. You know history beckons. But that would be the case even without the added trifle of being a 15th seed. Just being in the Sweet 16 is an opportunity few college players experience, and there are few examples more bittersweet than Holloway.

22 years ago Seton Hall ran to the Sweet 16 – indeed the last such attempt by any of our area schools. Holloway was the star of this team, which started the tournament as No. 10 and defeated both No. 7 Oregon and No. 2 Temple. But Holloway sprained his ankle on the owls. For five long days he tried desperately to get his ankle healthy. He never did. He watched in civilian clothes as the Pirates lost 68-66 to Oklahoma State.

That night, in a desolate dressing room at Seton Hall, Holloway had whispered, “I didn’t know you could be so sad over a basketball game.”

All these years later, Holloway is reluctant to indulge in nostalgia too much — “I want it to be about the players, not me,” he said — but it’s also clear he wants his kids to understand it it’s okay to take what happened for them to enjoy, to get a good, close look at Wells Fargo at about 7:08, just before the ball goes up, just before it gets real again.

“If you believe in yourself,” said the coach, “everything is possible.”

you will believe. Bet on it. You will play with fearlessness and ferocity, too given. It might not matter against the Boilermakers, who will throw two future pros at them. But then again, it shouldn’t have mattered against Kentucky, and it probably shouldn’t have mattered against Murray State either.

But here they are. Saint Peter is ready for another chance to shock the world


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