Shaheen Holloway told his Saint Peter’s players to pack enough clothes to last through Sunday.
“Not a lot of people believed that we could come out here and do what we’re doing,” Holloway said before Saturday night’s NCAA Tournament second-round game against Murray State, two days after his Peacocks rocked the tournament bracket with a shocking upset of Kentucky in the first round. “We came out here packed ready for Sunday. We said we were leaving on Sunday with two wins.”
And so they have. The No. 15-seed Peacocks powered on with their March Madness magic carpet ride, upsetting seventh-seeded Murray State, 70-60, before a sellout crowd of 17,838 at Gainbridge Fieldhouse to advance to the Sweet 16 in the East Region.
You read that correctly: The Sweet 16.
It has been that kind of March for this rag-tag group of chip-on-their-shoulder players from the tiny Jersey City school of just 2,355 undergrads that entered the tournament having never won an NCAA game in three tries.
Only twice before had a 15th seed reached the Sweet 16 — Florida Gulf Coast in 2013 and Oral Roberts last year. Saint Peter’s is the third.
How did Saint Peter’s (21-11), an eight-point underdog to bigger and stronger Murray State (31-3) after it was an 18-point ‘dog against Kentucky, do it?
With grit, physicality, fearlessness and a toughness that Murray State never imagined it would have to deal with for 40 minutes. The Peacocks played the Racers as if they were in a street fight, and looked beautifully comfortable doing so.
“I got guys from New Jersey and New York City. Do you think we’re scared of anything?” Holloway said after the game. “You think we’re worried about guys trying to muscle us and tough us out? We do that. That’s what we are.”
When it was over, as Saint Peter’s grabbed the last rebound of the game, the Murray State players retreated toward their bench while Peacocks guard Doug Edert dribbled out the clock to :00 and the team celebrated.
The Peacocks’ Drame brothers, Hassan and Fousseuyni, knelt on the court and kissed the hardwood.
The Murray State players left the floor looking as if they had no idea what hit them.
“These guys deserve it,” Holloway said of his team. “With what I put these guys through during the year, playing the game is easy. Practice is hard. These guys came here on a mission. Everybody keeps saying, we can’t do this, we can’t do that, we don’t have this, we don’t have that. We’ve got heart. That’s all that matters.”
That heart showed as Murray State whittled the Saint Peter’s lead, which had been as great as 40-27, to 59-57 with four minutes remaining. The Racers had trailed in 10 games this season before Saturday night and had won eight of them.
Not on this night, though. Saint Peter’s answered every Murray State run with remarkable poise.
“Great accomplishment for them this week,” Murray State coach Matt McMahon said. “Really tough and physical team. Every time we were able to get back into the game, they made a big play on offense from an execution standpoint.”
The beauty of what Saint Peter’s pulled off — other than the final result — was how it got to the final result. The Peacocks defeated the Racers in a completely different way than they defeated Kentucky.
Against Kentucky, Saint Peter’s hurt the Wildcats with its outside shooting. Daryl Banks III scored 27 points, 16 of which game in the first half in that game. Edert came off the bench and scored 20.
Against Murray State, Banks had six points and Edert had 13, 28 fewer combined points than the 47 they scored against Kentucky. The Peacocks didn’t have their outside shooting going (3-for-13) so they did it another way — in the paint.
This game was about banging with the larger Racers. This game was about the Peacocks’ big man, KC Ndefo, who scored 11 points in the first half and finished with 17 points, 10 rebounds and six blocks.
This game was about the Saint Peter’s defense holding Murray State, which averages almost 80 points per game, to 20 below that, and 34.6-percent shooting.
Murray State star KJ Williams, who entered the game averaging 19.4 points and 9.4 rebounds per game, was neutralized, finishing with a quiet 12 points and three rebounds.
This was as eye-opening as the Kentucky win when you consider that Murray State entered the game with the best record in the nation while riding a 21-game winning streak that began Dec. 22. So, this was Murray State’s first loss of 2022 .
“I’m just proud that these guys get to play on a different type of stage,” Holloway said. “NCAA Tournament is every kid’s dream. Playing in the MAAC is a great league, but we don’t get a lot of big TV games. So now these guys get a chance to show their talent on the big stage. That’s what I’m proud of. These guys worked so hard for this moment.”
Saint Peter’s led for 34:17 of the game and never trailed.
Now the Peacocks head to Philadelphia to play on Friday in the Sweet 16 as the darlings of this NCAA Tournament.