Buckle Up for the Most Exciting Final Four in Years – Even Without St. Peter’s Magic

6 minute read

To understand why Shaheen Holloway’s stock has skyrocketed during these past few weeks of March Madness, you only need to look at what he did during a timeout early the East regional final on Sunday. With his St. Peter’s Peacocks down 7-0 to North Carolina, Holloway drew up a play intended to spark his team: a lob pass for junior guard Daryl Banks. Like many of Holloway’s calls during the tournament, this one worked to perfection. After a series of movements, Banks found himself wide open underneath the basket. He rose to receive the pass, point blank at the rim.

But Banks missed the easy shot. And St. Peter’s still hadn’t scored.

It was that kind of evening for the Peacocks in Philadelphia. North Carolina stomped out the darlings of March Madness, 69-49, on Sunday, ending a magic ride: the Peacocks became the first 15-seed to ever play in the Elite Eight of the NCAA men’s basketball tournament—one game away from the Final Four. St. Peter’s missed seven shots at the rim and another five close jumpers in the lane, though the Tar Heels defense contested many of them. The Peacocks finished the game shooting just 4-16, or 25%, from three-point range.

Despite the skill and pluckiness of Holloway’s undersized team, and the enthusiasm of the St. Peter’s partisans that made the easy trip down the Turnpike from Jersey City, at times the game had the feel of first-round blowout between a No. 1 seed and a No.16 seed. The Peacocks fell behind 27-9 and could never recover. North Carolina had too much Armando Bacot, the 6’10” junior who finished with 22 rebounds and 20 points, and Brady Manek, the 6’9″ grad transfer with the lumberjack beard; Manek shot 4-6 from 3-point range and had 19 points.

“I didn’t really recognize my team the first ten minutes of the game,” says Holloway. “We came out a little slow, a little timid.”

St. Peter’s hit a wall, as so many upset-minded teams do during the tournament. Despite the game’s letdown, the Peacocks got further in the Big Dance than any 15th-seeded pre-tournament afterthought ever did. The run was unforgettable. Late in the game, a group of St. Peter’s players huddled together and told themselves that they just accomplished something amazing.

“They shocked the world,” says Holloway, who is likely to take the head coaching job at his alma mater, Seton Hall of the Big East. “You’ve got guys [who are] going to be remembered for things that they could tell their kids and their grandkids. It’s a story within a story. I’m super proud of these guys. They came in and made history. Point-blank, period.”

Luckily for college basketball, the sport couldn’t really lose in this game. The winner was going to move to to play Duke, the No. 2 seed out of the West region, in the Final Four on April 2, in Duke coach Mike Krzyzewski’s swan song. So the winningest coach in college basketball history was going to either face America’s new favorite college team, the Peacocks, or his Tobacco Road rival, the Tar Heels, in a matchup that’s never happened in any March Madness round—never mind the national semifinals. Bitter rivals North Carolina and Duke have faced each other 257 times since 1920, with UNC leading the all-time series 142 to 115. But the schools have somehow never met in the Big Dance.

The field for New Orleans, which is hosting the Final Four for the first time in a decade, is absolutely loaded. Besides Duke-UNC, Villanova faces Kansas in the other semi. ‘Nova, also a No. 2 seed, has won two of the past five national titles. The Jayhawks, a No. 1 seed, just passed Kentucky as the winningest program in men’s college basketball history.

Most of the attention and sentiment will go to Krzyzewski leading up to New Orleans, for good reason. But North Carolina is writing a hell of a story on its own. Hubert Davis, North Carolina’s first-year head coach, found himself under some heat from the school’s rabid fan base this season, especially after his team lost to Wake Forest by 22 points in January. That defeat came four days after an 85-57 drubbing at the hands of Miami. The team had finished 14-19 in the COVID-truncated 2019-2020 season, and the Tar Heels lost in the first round round of the NCAA tournament a year ago. Davis had been hearing the whispers: What’s going on at mighty Carolina? “That’s not typical North Carolina,” Davis says. “I want this program to be respected.”

Davis faced the unenviable tasks of replacing Hall of Fame coach Roy Williams, who retired last April after winning three national titles in 18 years in Chapel Hill. Davis becomes the first rookie coach to make the men’s national semis since UNC’s Bill Guthridge led the Tar Heels to the Final Four in 1998. Davis, a former UNC star who played a dozen years in the NBA, is just the second men’s coach to reach the Final Four with the same school as both a player and head coach. (Dick Harp, who played for Kansas in the 1940 Final Four and coached the the 1957 team to the national championship games, was first.)

After the final buzzer sounded, Davis, who was hired last April and is the first Black men’s basketball head coach in North Carolina history, teared up before shaking hands with Holloway at mid-court. “It’s been a wild 11-and-a-half months,” says Davis. “It was the first time I can remember in the last 11-and-a-half months that I could take a deep breath, and it just came out.”

The North Carolina-Duke game next Saturday will be one of the most anticipated and hyped matchups in Final Four history. Davis and the Tar Heels have already mucked with Coach K’s victory tour: UNC beat Duke 94-81 on March 5, spoiling Krzyzewski’s final home game at Cameron Indoor Stadium. “I don’t think anything can be as crazy as it was leading up to the game over in Cameron,” says Davis. “We keep our eyes straight ahead and we ignore all the noise. I consistently tell them to turn down or turn off the noise of the phone, family, and friends. If you do that, just focus on our preparation and our practices, then our play will be good. And that’s what we’re going to do this upcoming week.”

St. Peter’s may have fallen. But we’re about to see a Final Four like no other. Everybody wins.

More Must-Reads From TIME

Write to Sean Gregory/Philadelphia at sean.gregory@time.com