More Like Ain’t Peter’s
9:32 PM EDT on March 27, 2022
PHILADELPHIA—North Carolina scored the first seven points of the game in Sunday's regional final game and Saint Peter’s coach Shaheen Holloway called a timeout. If there was a moment to make a statement and get back in the game, this was it. And, as he had throughout his team's run in the tournament, Holloway drew up a beautiful play. Matthew Lee—CBS was actually doing a soft-focus segment about his dad Butch, who led Marquette’s 1977 title team, and almost missed the play—held the ball at the top of the key. Daryl Banks made a backdoor cut and flashed open. Lee passed it to him. Banks caught it in the air. He tried to lay it in. The ball bounced off the front of the rim. It had the feeling of a sign from some higher power. Saint Peter, maybe?
The run was over. The first 15 seed to make the Elite 8 in the NCAA men’s basketball tournament lost in a runaway to an eight seed representing one of the sport’s bluest blue bloods. North Carolina walloped the Peacocks, 69-49, in a game that was never close. The Peacocks shot just 7-of-31 in the first 20 minutes and were doubled up, 38-19, at the half. The second half was basically a coronation for the Tar Heels, who head to their record 21st Final Four. When this kind of run finally ends for Cinderella, it can end badly.
“Kind of wish we could play this game over,” Holloway said afterwards. “I would have done a couple things different. But like I said, you've got to give those guys credit. They came out and they deserved it… I really thought we were going to win this game. I'll be honest with you. No disrespect to them. I just thought we could match up with them pretty good.”
Saint Peter’s had knocked off three higher seeds in the tournament to get to the regional final. Every game was close—if a lower seed wants to pull off an upset, it usually can’t fall behind by much. The Peacocks never trailed by more than six in their three wins, but were down 9-0 to open the regional final. Finally, the Peacocks didn’t play so well.
“We came out, we took three bad shots right away,” Holloway said. “Three terrible shots. And it got them run-outs. They got three easy baskets. That's how the game goes.… And I think that they did a good job having the momentum and kept chipping, kept chipping. And took it from there.”
Holloway was right. The first half was where the game began and ended. North Carolina may be an 8 seed, but their rotation is stacked with top recruits and they looked every bit like a basketball powerhouse for the first 20 minutes. After outworking and out-pestering a similarly beefy Purdue frontcourt in the Sweet 16, the Peacocks had no answer for basically anything North Carolina did inside. The Heels scored 20 of their 38 first half points in the paint. Brady Manek, a bearded 6-foot-9 forward with outside range who apparently likes “Your Love” by The Outfield, was instrumental in building a big early lead for the Tar Heels inside. He had 10 first-half points. Sophomore guard Caleb Love had 12. But the real hero was Armando Bacot, who had 15 rebounds—5 on the offensive side—at the half. The game was so clearly decided by that point that I was able to write this paragraph at halftime.
Bacot finished with 20 points and 22 rebounds. Manek had 19 points, Love 14. Most of their damage was done in the first half, and little was required after that. Saint Peter’s made a few small runs in the second half, which got the crowd involved, but they'd still be down 20-plus when the momentum from those runs sputtered out. For whatever it's worth, the Peacocks really did look fine in the second half! Though there was a lot of garbage time they almost played UNC to a standstill. They lost by 20 because they lost the first half by 19. The first couple minutes were the ones that decided the game.
“I feel like we came out a little slow,” Peacocks forward KC Ndefo said. “Our defensive intensity wasn't up to par today. But like Coach said, we give a lot of credit to them. They're a talented team, but today was on us.”
It was an unexpected run—a thrilling bit of underdog magic in the NCAA tournament. It was historic, and more importantly it ruled. But the Peacocks could only go so far.