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How did Saint Peter’s surprise us all? Breaking down the March Madness Cinderella

Saint Peter's Matthew Lee, left, and Doug Edert celebrate after defeating Purdue.
Saint Peter’s Matthew Lee, left, and Doug Edert celebrate after defeating Purdue in the Sweet 16 of the NCAA basketball tournament on Friday.
(Matt Slocum / Associated Press)
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Saint Peter’s is many things at this very moment after having pulled off another monstrous upset in the NCAA tournament, knocking off No. 3 seed Purdue 67-64 Friday night to advance to the Elite Eight.

It is arguably the greatest March Madness “Cinderella” of all time, becoming the first No. 15 seed (or 13-16 seed) to play for a spot in the Final Four.

It is arguably the best underdog story in team sports history — and we’ll be able to make that claim more firmly if the Peacocks take down a second blue blood in this tournament in No. 8 seed North Carolina, which edged past UCLA 73-66 Friday night.

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Depending on what happens Saturday night in the Duke-Arkansas West regional final in San Francisco, Saint Peter’s very well could be the only thing standing in the way of an historic Duke-North Carolina matchup in the Final Four that should have felt preordained from the moment Coach K announced his retirement last summer (the Blue Devils and Tar Heels have somehow never played in the tournament).

Of course, as tantalizing as Tobacco Road planting itself in New Orleans next week may be to some, it would be nauseating to just as many.

But Saint Peter’s — Saint Peter’s, the Jesuit university across the East River from Manhattan in Jersey City with 2,600 undergraduates! — will have a say. The Peacocks have proven they can beat this surging North Carolina team, already having sent home No. 2 seed Kentucky, No. 7 seed Murray State and the Boilermakers.

Saint Peter’s was a 13-point underdog to Purdue, an extremely competitive Big Ten program which has not made a Final Four since 1980. And yet the Peacocks, who played in only three NCAA tournaments until this one, are one game away.

In one tournament, they’ve won more games against top-three seeds (two) than Gonzaga has in two decades (one).

Here’s how they’ve made history and how they’ll hope to keep their dream — what is now America’s dream — alive:

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They are a TEAM

Saint Peter's Doug Edert, Hassan Drame and Matthew Lee celebrate after defeating Purdue on Friday.
Saint Peter’s Doug Edert (25), Hassan Drame (14) and Matthew Lee (15) celebrate after defeating Purdue on Friday.
(Chris Szagola / Associated Press)

The Peacocks’ leading scorer is guard Daryl Banks III, who averages just 11.4 points per game. The only other double-digit scorer is KC Ndefo at 10.7. But they have seven players who average at least 5.9, so the opponent can’t afford to focus too much on one player.

Just look at forward Clarence Rupert, who averaged 13 minutes per game this season and just 4.3 points. On Friday night against Purdue, Rupert, who is just 6 foot 8, played 22 minutes, scoring 11 points, grabbing three steals and blocking two shots while dealing with Purdue’s dynamic inside duo of Zach Edey and Trevion Williams.

Watching the game, the assumption would have been that Rupert was a key cog in the Saint Peter’s machine. Instead, he is a bit player who was fully capable when called upon.

Nearly two-thirds of NCAA men’s basketball champions have been a top-three seed. But one program has given reason for Cinderellas to dream big.

March 13, 2022

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They stay fresh

Saint Peter's Doug Edert (25) celebrates after beating Purdue in the Sweet 16 on Friday.
(Matt Slocum / Associated Press)

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Saint Peter’s coach Shaheen Holloway plays 10 guys in his rotation, so the Peacocks are always ready to “strut up,” no matter who’s on the floor.

Friday, only one player got 30 minutes of floor time.

In comparison, Purdue had three players go 30 minutes and a fourth at 28.

Against UCLA, North Carolina played five guys over 30 minutes and got just 16 minutes total from two reserves. That should play right into Saint Peter’s hands if it can stay within striking distance in the last 10 minutes.

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They are happy to grind on defense

Saint Peter’s creeped into the top 100 in Ken Pomeroy’s efficiency ratings on Friday night, which, given its strength of schedule, shows how good the Peacocks actually are.

But what really jumps out is that they are No. 24 nationally in defensive efficiency. They are just No. 216 on offense.

Clearly, Holloway and his kids love to get after it and are smart about scouting much more talented opponents.

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The Peacocks held star Purdue guard Jaden Ivey, one of the fastest players in the country and a projected future first-round pick, to nine points and two assists. A remarkable defensive performance.

No. 15 seed Saint Peter’s defeated Purdue 67-64 on Friday to continue its stunning NCAA tournament run, while top-seeded Kansas beat Providence.

March 25, 2022

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They’re feeling it at the right time

The Peacocks may have started the season 3-6 and lost to Canisius, Iona, Rider and Siena in conference play, but they won their last seven before the NCAA tournament and now have a 10-game winning streak.

March Madness is all about momentum, and it appears Saint Peter’s figured out how to play through anything that attempts to stall it.

“I got guys that just play basketball and have fun,” Holloway said to CBS afterward.

And maybe it is just that simple.

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March 25 is National Peacock Day

Yes, you read that right. That Saint Peter’s happened to play a Sweet 16 game on National Peacock Day tells you everything you need to know about how this run has been written into the stars.

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