Sometimes sports are worth celebrating, almost unabashedly.
Especially when, somehow, a St. Peter’s unfolds right before your eyes.
On Friday—or National Peacock Day, which is really a thing—the St. Peter’s Peacocks, a men’s basketball team representing a tiny Jesuit commuter school residing in Jersey City, NJ, a town long overshadowed by the New York City skyline hovering across the Hudson River, defeated Big Ten power Purdue 67-64 in a East regional semifinal game in Philadelphia. After the “holy crap, this is happening” victory, St. Peter’s becomes the first No. 15 seed to reach the Elite Eight of the men’s basketball tournament; the Peacocks will face No. 8 seed North Carolina, which beat No. 4 UCLA Friday night, on Sunday. At stake is a trip to the Final Four in New Orleans, which tips off on April 2.
During their improbable March Madness run, the Peacocks have knocked off No. 2-seeded Kentucky, a program that has won eight national championships and produced 27 NBA players on 2021-2022 opening night rosters, No. 7 Murray State, which entered its game against St. Peter’s riding a 21-game winning streak, and now No. 3 Purdue, a squad featuring skilled 7’4″ and 6″10″ front-court players. The tallest St. Peter’s starter stands at 6’8″. The Peacocks have won zero national championships and have zero players in the NBA. The last Peacock to suit up in the league was Rich Rinaldi, who played in seven games for the 1973-74 Captial Bullets.
Purdue’s total enrollment was 49,639 students this fall; St. Peter’s has 3.009. Purdue’s men’s basketball team generates $15.1 million in annual revenue, according to federal data; St. Peter’s, which plays its home games in a small gym called Run Baby Run Arena, brings in $1.6 million. Tax records show that St. Peter’s coach Shaheen Holloway made $266,344 in total compensation 2019: Purdue coach Matt Painter earned $3.2 million in salary this year.
Upsets—or even the hopes of an upset—drive interest in sports, and what a week it was for underdogs. In international soccer, North Macedonia beat defending European champion Italy, 1-0, in a World Cup qualifying match; the victory bounced Italy, a four-time World Cup champion, out of its second consecutive World Cup. Soccer pundits called it one of the biggest upsets in the sport’s history.
And now this, St. Peter’s in the Elite Eight, against bluest of the blue-blood North Carolina (a dozen current NBA players, six national titles, $26.2 million in men’s basketball revenue). The Peacocks are being called a Cinderella, but that cliche no longer really applies. This team is a true title contender. In its first three games, St. Peter’s beat teams seeded higher than its regional final opponent, the No. 8 Tar Heels. If anything, St. Peter’s should be expected to give North Carolina a game, if not send the Tar Heels home. The Peacocks guard up on defense, scrap like crazy for loose balls and rebounds, and employ a movement-heavy offense system that creates shots for its quick, sharpshooting guards and more-than-capable bigs.
Holloway is a coaching star who speaks in viral clips. “I got guys from New Jersey and New York City,” he said after his team beat Murray State in the second round last week. “You think we’re scared of anything?” That line, in true New Jersey fashion, wound up on a billboard off Route 4 in Bergen County.
After St. Peter’s historic win over Purdue, Holloway said on CBS: “I’ve got a bunch of guys who just play basketball and have fun. That’s all we do.”
He followed with a message for anyone doubting that his No. 15-seeded squad was the real deal.
“What are they gonna say now?” he told an interviewer, before bidding adieu. “See you later.”
See you Sunday, Shaheen. Can’t wait.
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