PHILADELPHIA—If the Sweet 16 was where Saint Peter’s finally met its end in the NCAA Tournament end, it would still have been a run that would be remembered for years. And before St. Peter’s just kept on doing what they’ve done all tournament long on Friday night, there was a sense that the Peacocks, the 15th seed in the East Region, had finally met their match.
With 3:43 left in the game, St. Peter’s star KC Ndefo fouled out. Purdue had been bullying Saint Peter’s inside all game, and now the three-time MAAC Defensive Player of the Year would be watching the rest of the game from the sidelines. The Boilermakers were only up 1, but had two shots coming after the game’s final media timeout. They were also the third seed in the East, and had spent the entire season ranked in the national top ten.
It was not the first time it seemed like Purdue was going to put this one away. They made their first four shots of the game and appeared to have cracked the Peacocks’ vaunted defense, and also scored six in a row just before halftime. After the Peacocks held the Boilermakers without a point for the first 5:48 of the second half, Purdue quickly scored six straight to go back ahead. None of these were the moment that Purdue pulled away, though. They never did. The Peacocks would survive Ndefo fouling out, too.
Saint Peter’s pulled ahead with just over two minutes to play, made their free throws down the stretch, and denied the higher seed a win for the third time in the NCAA tournament, 67-64. They became the first No. 15 seed to advance to the Elite 8 and will play in the East Regional Final on Sunday. The defiant question they brought into the game, which more or less amounted to “why not?” remains unanswered.
“We had a great crowd today,” said guard Doug Edert, who scored 10 points off the bench for the Peacocks. “The whole environment—it was just unreal. I don’t think any of us were nervous or really cared about how many people were there watching us. We just went out there and did our thing.”
There was a lot of black and gold heading into the arena in South Philadelphia, but it ended up a highly partisan Peacock crowd. There were a lot of fans down from Saint Peter’s, which is just about 90 minutes away in Jersey City. And once fans of UCLA and UNC made their way in, they became provisional Peacocks. A dance-off between Purdue Pete and Peter the Peacock ended up not being close.
In the biggest game in Saint Peter’s basketball history, they had more fans than they’d ever had for a game. They had a great gameplan, too. The Peacocks forced Purdue star Zach Edey into four turnovers in the first half; despite going 5-for-7 from the field, he played just 16 minutes and was a minus-7 when on the floor. Jaden Ivey, who made 64 threes this season, didn’t hit one tonight until there were just eight seconds left in the game. It was Purdue’s only three of the second half on 12 shots. Ivey also had six turnovers.
“We wanted to get him deeper,” Purdue coach Matt Painter said of Edey. “They did a good job of getting him out a couple times and really fighting, to their credit. And once he’s not as deep, he has to be careful on his dribble. So I thought he made a couple good simple passes there, but then he obviously struggled kind of passing and catching.”
And Saint Peter’s offense was crushing it, in their modest way. The Peacocks frequently did a little three-man weave to waste time to start a possession, then moved the ball into a great look at a three. Problem was, the Peacocks were not hitting them. They went 3-for-13 on threes in the first half, which makes the fact that they were still in it at all something of an achievement. They’d improve their percentage in the second, hitting 3-of-8, although the deciding factor was that once they decided to settle for midrange jumpers in the second half, they hit them.
“Cinderella or not, they earned it,” Purdue guard Sasha Stefanovic said. “Fifteen seed, who cares. They’re good. They’re a good team. They can beat anybody. So no, it doesn’t really make a difference to be honest. It still sucks.”
Purdue’s Trevion Williams led all scorers with 16 points on 7-of-15 shooting. The burly big man had a real run midway through the second half, scoring 7 points on three consecutive trips down the court and briefly seeming as unguardable as the towering Edey was supposed to be. Purdue went up 56-52 with five minutes to play, and the pro-Peter’s crowd got a little quieter. But once the Peacocks went to a zone, Williams only hit one free throw the rest of the game. “We didn’t probe the defense like we should,” Painter said.
Saint Peter’s took the lead for good on a Daryl Banks jumper with just over two minutes left. Banks led the Peacocks with 14. The team went 19-for-21 from the line—and 17-for-18 in the second half. Edert calmly sank two FTs with four seconds left, and Ivey’s logo three clanked iron at the horn. The arena erupted. Edert jumped on a table. (“You hopped on the table?” Holloway said at the postgame press conference with a bit of mock disgust.) The Peacocks will be an underdog again on Sunday, naturally, but come on. They can totally win again.
“We know we’re just as good as any team in the country,” the Peacocks Matthew Lee said. “As long as we stick to our game, play defense, and give it 100 percent, we feel like we can hang with anybody.” Who, at this point, could argue with that?