Saint Cinderella shows up for its Elite Eight news conference in wrinkled practice jerseys, mismatched protective masks, and the widest eyes.
“It’s unthinkable,” says KC Ndefo.
Saint Cinderella is asked about the star center on upcoming opponent North Carolina, but says it has never heard of the guy.
“I don’t even know who Edey is,” says Hassan Drame.
Um, there is nobody on North Carolina named Edey.
“We don’t really know those names,” says Hassan’s twin brother, Fousseyni. “All we see is a player.”
A look into how Saint Peter’s shocked the sports world by becoming the first No. 15 seed to advance to the Elite Eight of the NCAA tournament.
Saint Cinderella is asked if it has fully realized what it’s accomplished, and it admits, no way.
“I’ll say it man, it’s a dream,” says coach Shaheen Holloway. “I don’t want to wake up, and these guys don’t want to wake up.”
In the past two weeks it is America that has been awakened, to the greatest underdog story in the NCAA tournament, to the most lovable tale in recent sports memory, to the miracle of Saint Peter’s.
“Yes, it’s a Cinderella story,” says Holloway, later adding, “Stories like this don’t really happen.”
They literally don’t really happen. The 15th-seeded Peacocks became the lowest seeded team in tournament history to advance to the Elite Eight with a stunning 67-64 victory over Purdue on Friday night at the rollicking Wells Fargo Center.
Saint Peter’s had already beaten heavily favored Kentucky and favored Murray State. With the victory over the heavily favored Boilermakers, the Peacocks unimaginably moved to within one game of the Final Four, that game being Sunday’s East Regional final here against the bluest of blue blood North Carolina.
“We don’t really get into the Cinderella too much, we like being called underdogs. The underdog statement, we thrive off that, just being the team that everybody doubted.”
— KC Ndefo, Saint Peter’s forward
Calling it David versus Goliath would be an understatement. It’s more like David’s junior varsity team versus the Goliath All-Stars.
The Tar Heels have won six national championships while, before this spring, the Peacocks had never even won an NCAA tournament game.
Tar Heels coach Hubert Davis will make more than $2 million this year, which is more than the entire Saint Peter’s basketball budget.
The Tar Heels play in front of capacity crowds at the sparkling 21,750-seat Dean E. Smith Center, while the Peacocks labor in a glorified high school gym that seats 3,200 when the bleachers are pulled down.
The Tar Heels appear regularly on national television while Saint Peter’s once played a game at 6 a.m. in exchange for some rare airtime.
And, yes, the Tar Heels are home to dominating center Armando Bacot, the player that Hassan Drame did not know.
“We don’t see high, we don’t see talent,” says Hassan.
“I always see basketball as just hope,” says Fousseyni.
Truly, this is a story of hope.
Hope, that a Jersey City, N.J., Jesuit commuter school of about 2,100 students can triumph in a land of giants.
Hope that an invisible team populated by players with no resumes and few options can dominate in a tournament of glitz.
Hope that greatness can emerge from a crowded and cluttered neighborhood two miles west of New York City, a place that fits the personality of its hardscrabble players.
“I’ve got guys from New Jersey and New York City,” said Holloway on national television last week. “You think we’re scared of anything?”
It’s also a place where basketball acuity is less important than another skill.
“Parallel parking,” says guard Daryl Banks III, who grew up in Los Angeles before playing high school basketball in New Jersey. “One of the toughest things at our school is parallel parking.”
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.
They play in a 47-year-old gym that, despite a $5 million renovation last year, is still basically a community center.
There’s a swimming pool next to the court and, before the renovations, strange dudes in Speedos would wander through the team locker room.
The weight room once shared a wall with a philosophy classroom, so the players had to lift in silence. News conferences were once held in a yoga studio, although that was no big deal because there are rarely more than two reporters at any of their games.
A televised game against Manhattan was once canceled because of a leak in the roof. The coaching offices had been occasionally flooded because of other leaks. Visiting teams sometimes couldn’t shower because there was no hot water. One time a game was delayed because, during warmups, a rim fell off, just fell off.
All these stories and more appeared on a Twitter thread started by Ryan Woerner, an assistant coach from 2012 to 2014. Judging from some of those tales and others, Saint Peter’s current success is downright stupefying.
“Listen, I got guys that just play basketball . . . I got a bunch of guys that just play basketball and have fun, that’s all we’re doing.”
— Shaheen Holloway, Saint Peter’s coach
One year, the school was renovating the gym floor but didn’t synchronize the work with the start of the team’s practice schedule, so the Peacocks began their season working out at a high school gym. And it wasn’t the last time. During last season’s remodeling, they held every practice at an unheated high school gym with no shot clock.
There was a time when the school would allow homeless people to fill the stands on cold nights. Other times, assistant coaches would happen upon neighborhood folks shooting baskets at midnight and have no idea how they got in, how they turned on the lights, and how they accessed the basketball.
It’s no wonder that the current squad doesn’t like the frilly implications of being called a Cinderella. Their surroundings, their culture and their identity is no fairy tale.
“We don’t really get into the Cinderella too much, we like being called underdogs,” says Ndefo. “The underdog statement, we thrive off that, just being the team that everybody doubted.”
Can you blame the doubters? These Peacocks went 19-11 in the regular season, lost five of six games to Division I nonconference opponents, and didn’t even win their Metro Atlantic Athletic Conference. During the season they played only one other NCAA tournament team and Providence beat them by 15.
They entered the tournament as one of the worst offensive teams in the nation, ranking 260th out of 358 games in adjusted offensive efficiency, and ranking 317th in turnover ratio.
The one thing they could do, however, was play defense. And the swarming defense concocted by former Seton Hall star Holloway perfectly complemented that chip on their shoulders. They came into the tournament throwing the first punch and haven’t stopped swinging.
“It starts from the beginning of the game with our pressure on defense,” says popular mustachioed guard Doug Edert. “We’re just wearing people out. So by the end of the game, they’re exhausted, and I feel like our willpower is just way more advanced, and we just want it so bad.”
After the win over Purdue, the Peacocks ran in unison to the corner of the arena that housed their fans, and seemingly all of New Jersey cheered together, then Edert went full Kobe Bryant and jumped on the scorer‘s table, leading to this memorable postgame news conference exchange.
“You hopped on a table?” the coach said to his star.
“Well, I found a little opening and was so excited. . . ” said Edert.
The kid looked down and saw his coach staring annoyingly at him so he stopped in mid-sentence.
“Next question, next question,” he said.
After Edert departed the table, the team realized it was celebrating without Holloway, who was wonderfully ranting in a postgame television interview under the basket.
“What they gonna say now?” Holloway shouted on CBS. “Everybody got something to say! We can’t do this! We can’t do that! Cinderella! Underdogs! This, that, listen, I got guys. . . . ”
At this point, his team ran over and hugged him and shook him and together they bounced with improbable joy.
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.
“Listen, I got guys that just play basketball. . . . I got a bunch of guys that just play basketball and have fun, that’s all we’re doing,” Holloway kept shouting.
It was the voice of the unthinkable. It was the sound of hope.
Before the game, Saint Cinderella took the floor wearing T-shirts adorned with, “More Is Possible.”
For the sake of all that is sweet and strong and soul-stirring about sports, let’s hope so.
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